A judge on Tuesday ruled that the long-claimed copyright on Happy Birthday to You, the most popular tune in the English language, is not valid.
The decision, by Judge George King of the US District Court in Los Angeles, is a blow to music publisher Warner/Chappell and its parent company, the Warner Music Group, which have controlled the song since 1988 and reportedly still collect about US$2 million annually in licensing fees for it.
If the judge’s ruling stands, Happy Birthday to You would become part of the public domain.
The case, filed in 2013 by Jennifer Nelson, an independent filmmaker planning to make a documentary about the song, has been closely watched as a challenge to long copyright terms and corporate control of common culture.
King’s 43-page decision delved into the complex history of the song — a paper trail of copyright registrations and yellowed songbooks that goes back more than a century.
The song’s melody can be traced to Good Morning to All, a song written by Mildred Hill and her sister Patty, a kindergarten teacher in Kentucky, and first published in 1893 by the Clayton F. Summy Co.
Birthday-themed lyrics began to appear early in the 20th century — although their authorship was unclear, as King said — and in 1935, Summy registered a version of Happy Birthday to You. That is the copyright claimed by Warner/Chappell, which acquired the song in 1988 when it bought a company that then had the Summy catalogue.
However, the judge found that while Summy had published the original version of Good Morning to All, it never properly had rights to the birthday lyrics.
“Because Summy Co never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, defendants, as Summy Co’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics,” the judge wrote.
A spokesman for Warner/Chappell said the company was “looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”
Warner/Chappell has long enforced the copyright as it would for any other song, requiring licensing payments for its use in television or film.
According to estimates cited in a 2010 study of the song by George Washington University Law School professor Robert Brauneis, Happy Birthday To You yields about US$2 million in these fees each year.
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