'Happy Birthday' Song Loses Copyright; Warner May Lose Royalties

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 24, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. claims it's 205 years old. That's a lot of birthdays. Its next celebration may not be so happy, since it will start paying back 80 years worth of royalties it collected from the tune "Happy Birthday to You."

A U.S. judge ruled that Warner/Chappell's copyright on the song was invalid, meaning the company could owe millions it has collected in commercial use licenses.

Warner Raked in Royalties for Years

While Warner/Chappell wasn't running around enforcing its now-invalid copyright against every party at Chuck E. Cheese's, but it did seek royalties from enough artists to rake in about $2 million a year.

One of the plaintiffs in the case illustrates how the copyright on the song was enforced. Rupa Marya of the music group Rupa & The April Fishes, told the AP she paid Warner/Chappell $455 to include a live version of "Happy Birthday to You," sung by the band and members of the audience, on an album. Marya was understandably happy with the court's 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."

Birthday Song Set Free

So who made this stuff? The story of the song's copyright goes back to 1893, when Kentucky sisters Mildred and Patty Hill put a tune titled "Good Morning to All" in a kindergarten songbook. Warner traced its copyright to Clayton F. Summy Co., which Warner acquired in 1988, and who claimed it had a right to the melody and lyrics dating to 1935.

It was this alleged 1935 acquisition that U.S. District Judge George H. King found invalid. Judge King determined "[t]he Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics." So not only can Warner not charge for commercial uses of the song in the future, it may face lawsuits to repay any royalties it received since 1935.

Happy Litigation Day, Warner/Chappell; and many more.

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