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A music publishing company has been collecting fees on the song "Happy Birthday To You." But now a judge has found that it does not hold a valid copyright on the lyrics to the tune.
The money from the fee goes to those who hold copyrights. Those are the sole right to make copies and license musical or artistic work.
U.S. District Judge George H. King made the ruling. He determined the song's original copyright was obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co. The company got it from the song's writers. But it only covered specific piano versions of the song.
The judge said it did not cover the song's lyrics. The basic tune of the song is copied from another popular children's song. It is "Good Morning to All." It has long been in the public domain. That means anyone can use it or sing it for free.
King's decision comes in a lawsuit filed two years ago. It was filed by Good Morning To You Productions Corp. That company is working on a documentary film. It is titled "Happy Birthday."
The company questioned the copyright. It is now held by Warner/Chappell Music Inc. Good Morning To You argued that the song should be "dedicated to public use and in the public domain."
Summy Co. never got the rights to the 'Happy Birthday' lyrics. So Warner/Chappell does not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics, King concluded. He wrote a 43-page ruling.
The lawsuit also asked for monetary damages and repayment. They are asking for more than $5 million in licensing fees. The suit said in 2013 that Warner/Chappell had collected the money from thousands of people and groups. They paid to use the song over the years.
Marshall Lamm is a spokesman for one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. He said that issue would be determined later. Plaintiffs are those that bring a lawsuit.
One of the suit's co-plaintiffs is Ruypa Marya. She is part of the music group Ruypa & The April Fishes. She praised the decision.
"I hope we can start reimagining copyright law to do what it is supposed to do. Protect the creations of people who make stuff. So that we can continue to make more stuff," said Marya.
She added that she paid Warner/Chappell $455 to include "Happy Birthday To You" on a live album. On the album, members of her band and an audience sang the song to her the night before her birthday.
Warner/Chappell has said it does not try to collect fees from just anyone singing the song. Instead, it wants to collect from those who use it to make money.
In his ruling, King went into great detail. He described the history of "Happy Birthday To You." And how it originated from "Good Morning to All."
That song was written by sisters Mildred Hill and Patty Hill. They wrote it sometime before 1893, the judge said. He added that the sisters gave the rights to it and other songs to Clayton F. Summy.
Summy copyrighted and published them in a book. It was titled, "Song Stories for the Kindergarten."
"The origins of the lyrics to Happy Birthday (the 'Happy Birthday lyrics') are less clear," the judge continued. He said the first known reference to them appeared in a 1901 article. The article was in the Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal.
The full lyrics themselves, King said, did not appear in print until 1911.
Since then, they have become the most famous lyrics in the English language. That is according to Guinness World Records. The song is also sung in many languages around the world.
Warner/Chappell eventually got the song's copyright from Summy. Warner/Chappell argued that its prior owner had registered a copyright to "Happy Birthday To You" in 1935. That gave it the rights to all of the song, the company said.
The judge did not agree.
"Our record does not contain any contractual agreement from 1935 or before between the Hill sisters and Summy Co. concerning the publication and registration of these works," the judge said.