"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 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.

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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 (40)
  • raymunda-4-bar
    9/30/2015 - 07:11 p.m.

    The judge need to because the song lyrics never really was written, so it wasn't copyright, but the piano song was actually the copyright, not the song. It seems interesting because I didn't think, a song like "Happy Birthday" can actually get copyrighted claims. What shocked me is that "Happy Birthday" is the most sung song in the English language.

  • gigimarks-bak
    9/30/2015 - 08:01 p.m.

    This is a very fun and intrasting book for all ages .

  • annabel1226-yyca
    9/30/2015 - 08:37 p.m.

    I never knew that "Happy Birthday to you" was a famous lyric in English language. The person who made the lyric of "Happy Birthday" must have been famous. If I made the lyrics than I will add more excitements in the lyrics.

  • John0724-YYCA
    9/30/2015 - 08:56 p.m.

    I never knew that if you sang happy birthday online and post somewhere and someone sees it you could get sued and I'm glad I didn't do that because if I did I would have been paying 455 dollars to the company. But now we could sing it online thanks to court.

  • landonm-gon
    10/01/2015 - 02:12 p.m.

    happybirthday

  • carolinaz1-gon
    10/01/2015 - 02:21 p.m.

    i dont know but brithdays are fun and happy brithday to that little girl and i hope yall get to hit a penyata at that little girls brithday party

  • genevieveb-6-bar
    10/01/2015 - 04:11 p.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of happy birthday to make the verdict final. At the article's end, it states,"That gave all rights to the song, the company said. The judge disagreed' (paragraphs 15 and 16). Since the final say belongs to the judge and jury, to legalize the verdict, the judge calls the shots. A judge needed to rule the ownership of "Happy Birthday" to legalize the decision made at court that day.

    I found this article interesting because it surprises me that people would make a movie based on charges that Warner/Chappell laid on those whom used the copyrighted song.

  • amyl-Har
    10/02/2015 - 12:49 p.m.

    The judge had to rule on the ownership because he needed to know who truly wrote the song and if some body was lying. The song turned out to have a piano copyright in the back ground.

  • mcmegan-Har
    10/02/2015 - 12:52 p.m.

    The Judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because if the judge didn't, the company that first made it and the company that had "copied" it would be going to court and would have to pay money, but since the judge already ruled on the ownership of the song, they are ok.

  • elliottm-Har
    10/02/2015 - 12:52 p.m.

    The judge needed to rule the happy birthday because so that every one is going to sing on there birthday so it needs to be suitable and make sure it sounds good

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