A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that the copyright on the “Happy Birthday” song is no longer valid, ending 80 years of royalty revenue for Warner/Chappell, the music publishing company that owned the rights to the song.
A group of filmmakers who are producing a documentary about the song were one of the reasons for the lawsuit. In any film, television show or video that is produced the songs used need to be paid for, including, many might be surprised to know, “Happy Birthday.” Filmmakers have paid up to $5,000 to include the song in a movie for only nine seconds. Using the familiar tune could break the bank – until now.
Judge George H. King ruled that the publishing company only owns a specific piano arrangement of the song and not the song itself, a reversal of a 1935 copyright claim.
It’s been a long road for the simple yet familiar tune. A Kentucky kindergarten teacher and her sister wrote the six-note song in 1893 with different lyrics and titled it “Good Morning To All.” Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill then sold the rights to the song to publisher Clayton F. Summy Co. Somewhere down the line, the words were changed to “Happy Birthday,” but it has always been unclear who changed them.
Warner/Chappell came to own the song in 1988 when it bought Birch Tree Group, a publishing company that owned the copyright after Summy Co. They have enforced the royalties ever since.
But since the Hill sisters did not write the “Happy Birthday” lyrics, only the melody was owned by the publisher they sold it to – not the words. “Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics…Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest do not own a valid copyright in the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics,” said King’s ruling.
The “Happy Birthday” song is finally free. It only took 122 years.