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The music publishing company that has been collecting payments on the song "Happy Birthday To You" does not hold a valid copyright on the lyrics to the tune.
U.S. District Judge George H. King determined the song's original copyright only covered specific piano arrangements of the song. It was obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co. from the song's writers. The judge said it did not cover the song's lyrics. The basic tune of the song is derived from another popular children's song. That song is "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. The company is working on a documentary film. It is tentatively titled "Happy Birthday." The company challenged the copyright. It is now held by Warner/Chappell Music Inc. The company 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, Warner/Chappell doesn't 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 of 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, 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. 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 doesn't try to collect royalties from just anyone singing the song. Instead, it wants to collect from those who use it for commercial purposes.
In his ruling, King went into great detail. He described the history of "Happy Birthday To You" and its origin 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. Summy 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. It appeared 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. 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 previous 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 disagreed.
"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.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did a judge need to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday?"
Write your answers in the comments section below