It's settled: Now you can sing “Happy Birthday”
It's settled: Now you can sing “Happy Birthday” (Thinkstock)
It's settled: Now you can sing “Happy Birthday”
Lexile: 950L

Assign to Google Classroom

A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit over whether "Happy Birthday to You" is owned by a music publisher who earned millions by enforcing its copyright.  It is one of the best-known and beloved songs in the world. 
U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled in September that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. didn't own the lyrics to the song, only some musical arrangements.  The judge said the company had no right to charge for its use. Individuals are not charged for the song.  But companies that use it for commercial purposes have had to pay.
A trial was set to begin in Los Angeles. It could have finally decreed whether the lyrics sung to generations of birthday boys and girls around the globe really is in the public domain.
Also to be decided at trial was whether Warner/Chappell would have to return any of the licensing fees. Those are estimated at up to $2 million a year.  They were collected for use of the song in movies, television shows and other commercial ventures.
Judge King said all parties in the case had agreed to settle. So there will be no trial.
"It resolves all issues," said Randall Scott Newman. He is an attorney for one of the plaintiffs.
He and other lawyers declined to provide details of the settlement. The agreement is awaiting the judge's approval.
However, the previous ruling and the settlement strongly imply that the lyrics will become available for free.
Jennifer Nelson was billed $1,500 to use "Happy Birthday to You" in a documentary she is doing on the song's history. She said she is "delighted" with the outcome of the case.
"We revealed a dark side to the happy tune," she said. "It's a song that everyone's familiar with and grew up with. But nobody knew that this song was copyrighted. And you had to pay a license for that."
"The fact that it was illegally and wrongfully in the clutches of Warner/Chappell really outraged people. And now we've been able to rectify that situation. So it's really gratifying," she said.
"While we respectfully disagreed with the court's decision, we are pleased to have now resolved this matter," Warner/Chappell said in a statement.
The tune, with different lyrics, was written in 1893 by Patty Smith Hill, a Kentucky kindergarten teacher and her sister, Mildred J. Hill. They called it "Good Morning to All."
They assigned the rights to that and other songs to Clayton F. Summy. He copyrighted and published them in a book titled "Song Stories for the Kindergarten."
Over the years, the rights passed from the Clayton F. Summy Co. to Birch Tree Group and then to Warner when it bought Birch Tree in 1988.
The lawsuit was filed two years ago by musicians and filmmakers who were billed for using "Happy Birthday to You."
In his September ruling, King noted that while the tune has long been in the public domain, the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You" have a murkier background. They were mentioned in a 1901 publication. But the full lyrics didn't appear in print until 1911.
It wasn't until 1930 that Patty Hill claimed to have written the lyrics at the same time that she co-wrote "Good Morning to All."
King ruled that Summy Co. never actually acquired the rights to the lyrics - only to piano arrangements of the melody - and thus its successor had no valid copyright.
Among other issues the settlement is expected to resolve is a contention that the copyright is owned by two charities that were beneficiaries of the Hill estate. The charities had accepted royalties from Warner/Chappell for more than 20 years.

Source URL:

Filed Under:  
Assigned 141 times
What made this case so complicated?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • ryannh-jac
    12/18/2015 - 01:51 p.m.

    To be honest this is kind of irritating that someone try to own the happy birth day son.

  • simonak-3-bar
    12/18/2015 - 02:47 p.m.

    This case was so complicated, because different people claimed rights to this song. As stated in this passage, "Patty Hill claimed to have written the lyrics." This is just one of the people who claimed to have wrote this song, and this made it very complicated for the judges to decide what should happen and who the rights really belonged to.
    My opinion on this article is that the song "Happy Birthday" should not have been about making money, but about celebrating someone's birthday! The person who was making a bunch of money off of the song I believe had wrong morals.

  • sarahk-jac
    12/18/2015 - 04:24 p.m.

    This article is super interesting, it was educational but a fun topic. I love how we can sing "Happy Birthday to You" with out getting fined. It makes senses that in movies, commercials, and TV shows that they get billed because many people are seeing it. I loved this article, so fascinating!

  • emilypl-Sch
    12/21/2015 - 10:20 a.m.

    This is stupid to have a lawsuit about the "Birthday Song", seriously it is just a song. It is just a song that millions people sing all over the world.

  • charlesp-1-sch
    12/21/2015 - 11:26 a.m.

    wow it is a simple song that is sung all the time and people deserve tje right to sing the song

  • zehetcou000-hay
    12/21/2015 - 11:33 a.m.

    Birthdays are funny to have.

  • cattocas000-hay
    12/21/2015 - 11:33 a.m.

    thanks for making a 20 paragraphs about a birthday that makes my birthday want to be now because of you, you.

  • John0724-YYCA
    12/21/2015 - 01:02 p.m.

    I never knew that it was illegal to sing the happy birthday song and post it online and I'm glad that they made the settlement that you could sing happy birthday now. I sang that song a whole lot of time and I am thankful that no one important like the CIA caught me or I could have been in jail. I think that it was kind of foolish for them to make Happy Birthday song illegal to sing and post it. It is just stupid but finally someone saved us from the terror of singing the song but I saw a whole lot of other people singing the song.

  • allysonl-sch
    12/21/2015 - 01:55 p.m.

    I honestly think its absurd that you would have been copyrighted for the Birthday Song! So many people sing it and TV shows use it. Its useless for a copyright to be on the song. It crazy i'm happy there no longer copyright on the famous song.

  • darcyd-1-sch
    12/21/2015 - 02:03 p.m.

    I don't care who came up with the song and who owns it it's just a song and I don't think that you should be wasting peoples time by fight over weather or not the song is yours or not. #hungry_people

Take the Quiz Leave a comment