"Happy Birthday" has its day in court This July 18, 2013, file photo shows a group of kindergarten children singing Happy Birthday to Nelson Mandela outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa. The music publishing company that has been collecting royalties on the song "Happy Birthday To You" for years does not hold a valid copyright on the lyrics to the tune that is one of the mostly widely sung in the world, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
"Happy Birthday" has its day in court
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The music publishing company that has been collecting royalties on the song "Happy Birthday To You" does not hold a valid copyright on the lyrics to the tune that is one of the mostly widely sung in the world.
 
U.S. District Judge George H. King determined the song's original copyright, obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co. from the song's writers, only covered specific piano arrangements of the song and not its lyrics. The basic tune of the song is derived from another popular children's song, "Good Morning to All." It has long been in the public domain.
 
King's decision comes in a lawsuit filed two years ago by Good Morning To You Productions Corp. It is working on a documentary film tentatively titled "Happy Birthday." The company challenged the copyright now held by Warner/Chappell Music Inc.  It argued that the song should be "dedicated to public use and in the public domain."
 
"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," King concluded in his 43-page ruling.
 
The lawsuit also asked for monetary damages and restitution of more than $5 million in licensing fees it said in 2013 that Warner/Chappell had collected from thousands of people and groups who've paid to use the song over the years.
 
Marshall Lamm, a spokesman for one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said that issue would be determined later.
 
In the meantime, one of the suit's co-plaintiffs, Ruypa Marya of the music group Ruypa & The April Fishes, praised the decision.
 
"I hope we can start reimagining copyright law to do what it's 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 during which members of her band and audience sang the song to her the night before her birthday.
 
Warner/Chappell has said it doesn't try to collect royalties from just anyone singing the song, but those who use it in a commercial enterprise.
 
"We are looking at the court's lengthy opinion and considering our options," Warner/Chappell said in a statement following the ruling.
 
In his ruling, King went into great detail about the history of "Happy Birthday To You" and its derivation from "Good Morning to All."
 
That song was written by sisters Mildred Hill and Patty Hill sometime before 1893, the judge said. He added that the sisters assigned the rights to it and other songs to Clayton F. Summy, who copyrighted and published them in a book 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 in the Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal.
 
The full lyrics themselves, King said, didn't appear in print until 1911.
 
Since then, they have become the most famous lyrics in the English language, according to Guinness World Records. The song is also sung in many languages around the world.
 
Warner/Chappell, which eventually acquired the song's copyright from Summy, argued that its predecessor had registered a copyright to "Happy Birthday To You" in 1935. That gave it the rights to all of the song, the company said.
 
"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.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did a judge need to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday?"
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (12)
  • maddyc-Orv
    10/02/2015 - 03:04 p.m.

    I don't think it really matters who owns the 'Happy Birthday To You' song because everyone is going to sing it anyway so who cares who gets the copyright of it? It's not like millions of people buy it on iTunes.

  • erind-day
    10/02/2015 - 04:53 p.m.

    I'm quite shocked that a company is trying to collect money for the rights of the most popular song in the world. Its unattainable and I don't understand their efforts to try and fight for the licensing fee of a song made over 100 years ago. This is a prime example of money hungry people that cannot just let the song be especially a song written based on the melody of an older song. The company does not even hold a valid copyright of the song so for now they need to just sit back and let the most popular song in the world go on.

  • trinityo-glo
    10/05/2015 - 08:19 a.m.

    This article is amazing, who knew that this big of an event could happen because they don't have a valid copyright on the lyrics and tune. I wonder what the final decision will be?

  • katiev-1-glo
    10/05/2015 - 11:52 a.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because some people argued they had rights to the song so the company began to sue others on the issue of copyright. They want other companies to pay them money if they want to have rights to use the song. I believe the song belongs to no one specifically but on the contrary to us all.

  • erins-3-glo
    10/05/2015 - 12:01 p.m.

    A company that claimed that it had the copyright to "Happy Birthday" was charging people to use the song for professional use. If the ownership of the song is legally changed, then people will no longer have to pay to use the song. Also, the company did not legally own the song so it is not fair for them to get to make money off of it.

  • dejamc-2-glo
    10/05/2015 - 12:04 p.m.

    The judge needed the rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" song because of the money. Every-time someone sings this song then the judge gets more money for and he basically does have the illegal rights to this song.

  • carrilc-sto
    10/07/2015 - 09:24 a.m.

    Good Morning To You Production Corp. is working on a documentary film tentativly titled "Happy Birthday" and thinks the song should be dedicated to public use and public domain, but nobody knows where the lyrics originally came from.

  • corbina-sto
    10/07/2015 - 09:35 a.m.

    They need someone of a higher authority to make the decision and they needed someone who would take the situation seriously.

  • adamsh-sto
    10/07/2015 - 09:37 a.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" so the wrong people would not be collecting royalties on something that is not even theirs. Also, a judge needed to rule on the ownership so the person who really had ownership would not have to worry about someone else taking credit for their song.

  • mankers-sto
    10/09/2015 - 08:59 a.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because there is no copyright on the lyrics. The people who created them should be able to take credit.

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