"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)
  • coled-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:15 p.m.

    CTQ: A judge was needed because a lawsuit was set in on a company before Warner/Chappell owned the copyrights, so the judge had to rule on the legitimacy upon the lawsuit.

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

    The judge needed to rule the ownership of " Happy Birthday", 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.

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

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because the company that "owned" the song had taken millions of dollars from people that had used it, and since so many people have used or use the song it needs to be in the public domain.

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

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because people were having to spend money to sing it in public, and there have been several arguments over it.

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

    A judge had to rule on the ownership of "happy birthday" because it had a royalties on the song which means if you sing the song in public you have to pay money to the owner but many have named it the "peoples song".

  • hannaha-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:16 p.m.

    The judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because it didn't have copyright on the tune, only the lyrics. People were getting fined for it.

  • brooklynk-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:16 p.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because people were using the song for commercial use without permission from the person who owns the copyright.

  • hollyk-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:16 p.m.

    The judge needed to rule on the ownership of "Happy Birthday" because people had to pay for the "Happy Birthday To You" to be used in commercials without permission from the owner.

  • mimir-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:17 p.m.

    The judge needed to rule ownership of the song so that the rightful owner receives the royalties.

  • audreya-fel
    10/21/2015 - 02:17 p.m.

    A judge needed to rule on the ownership of the "happy birthday" song so he/she could decide if people still needed to be fined for it or let the people have their song back for free.

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