Copyright Law

'Happy Birthday' song is in the public domain, judge rules

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The company that has collected royalties since 1988 for use of the “Happy Birthday” song did not have a valid copyright, according to a federal judge in Los Angeles.

U.S. District Judge George King ruled against Warner/Chappell Music Inc. on Tuesday, report the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Hollywood reporter’s THR Esq. and the Los Angeles Times.

The decision (PDF) represents “a stunning reversal of decades of copyright claims,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Warner/Chappell collects about $2 million each year in licensing fees for the song, according to estimates in a 2010 study of the song by George Washington University law professor Robert Brauneis.

At issue in the case was the copyright to the song lyrics; the melody had already entered the public domain. A filmmaker making a documentary about the song, Jennifer Nelson, had challenged the copyright after Warner/Chappell said she would have to pay a $1,500 licensing fee for the music.

Chappell/Warner had argued it acquired the copyright to the lyrics when is purchased a successor company to the Summy Corp., which acquired the rights from Patty and Mildred Hill, two sisters who wrote the song. Summy registered the copyright in 1935.

King said the sisters had transferred to Summy only the rights to the melody and to specific piano arrangements for the Happy Birthday song. “Obviously, pianos don’t sing,” King wrote. “Thus it is not logical to infer that rights to ‘piano arrangements’ would include rights to any lyrics or words as well.”

A lawyer for the plaintiffs Mark Rifkin, said he would ask the judge to certify a class action on behalf of those who have paid licensing fees.

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