"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.
 
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. 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, "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. That company is working on a documentary film. It is 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, 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 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. 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 in a commercial enterprise.
 
In his ruling, King went into great detail. He described 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.  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 acquired the song's copyright from Summy. Warner/Chappell 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.
 
The judge disagreed, however.
 
"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 (32)
  • chrisp-mel
    9/30/2015 - 03:17 p.m.

    The judge needed to rule on this because people were having to pay for using this commercially.

  • jaylynnj-Orv
    10/01/2015 - 12:51 p.m.

    How does this article affect us? Because in all seriousness, no matter who owns The Happy Birthday Song it's still going to be sung. In my opinion, the people own The Happy Birthday song. Not some big company.

  • ziont-orv-orv
    10/02/2015 - 12:23 p.m.

    It's a shame such an iconic theme that children grew up with
    tried to get a copyright. Imagine if little Jimmy has a birthday party, his mom records the moments when he blows out the candles for his big day, now they're singing Happy Birthday. Mom uploads ''Jimmy's big ten'' lots a views = lots of money here comes Warner/Chappell lawsuit! Big disaster, lost money, being sad for using a happy song...

  • reillye-rei
    10/06/2015 - 03:47 p.m.

    Happy birthday was a song written by certain people who used the tune of "good morning to all" and the people who wrote it had been taxing other people for years until one person didnt pay and showed them the contract, so king had to make a ruling.

  • jthom-wim
    10/21/2015 - 01:09 p.m.

    A judge needs to rule on this because this is someone's creation! It's a persons masterpiece and using it without paying isn't right. They need to have an authority decide.

  • mattv-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:12 p.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because "Happy Birthday" was believed to always belong to original creators, though they have been deceased for years. The song was written in the 1800s, and 200 years later we still thought it was copy written... surely that's enough time to say, "Hey, maybe it doesn't matter anymore."

  • elizabetht-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:12 p.m.

    A judge had the need to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because of it's original copyright.

  • kyleighp-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:13 p.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because it is extremely well known.

  • ethanw-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:13 p.m.

    because the song was copyrighted

  • kolbyd-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:15 p.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "happy birthday" because Warner/Chapel had been collecting royalties on it for over 70 years.

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