August 17, 2016

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According to the Guinness Book of Records, “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognizable song in the English language.  Certainly it has to be one of the most, if not the most, frequently performed songs in history.  But did you know that there is a company that claims to own the copyright in the lyrics of the song, and has collected millions of dollars of royalties for the use of those lyrics (mainly in film and television, not from moms and pops singing the song to their little Suzy)?

The melody of the song was composed by the Hill sisters of Kentucky at some time before 1893, and accompanied different lyrics with the refrain (and song title) of “Good Morning to You.”  The lyrics of “Happy Birthday to You” are very similar to those of “Good Morning to You,” but they were written after the Hill sisters composed the melody, and their origin remains shrouded in mystery.

The Hill sisters assigned the copyright in the melody of “Good Morning to You” to a music publishing company named Summy Co., whose corporate successor was later acquired by Warner/Chappell, which is the publishing arm of Warner Music.  It is undisputed that the copyright in the song’s melody expired in 1949, but Warner/Chappell claimed to own the copyright in the lyrics as a result of copyright registrations filed in 1935.  Over the ensuing years, Warner/Chappell charged and collected royalties for the use of its lyrics that eventually reached an estimated $2 million a year.

In 2013 a class action was filed in federal court by the aptly named company, Good Morning to You Productions Corp., on behalf of all persons and businesses that had entered into a license with Warner/Chappell or had paid Warner/Chappell a royalty for the use of “Happy Birthday to You.”  In September of last year, the federal judge held that Warner/Chappell did not have a valid claim to ownership of the copyright in the lyrics of the song.

Rejecting Warner/Chappell’s position that the 1935 registrations gave it the basis for ownership of the copyright in the lyrics, the judge concluded that the 1935 registrations covered “various piano arrangements for the song” – not the lyrics.  The judge also found that it was not clear that the Hill sisters had actually composed the song’s lyrics, nor whether the lyrics were still entitled to copyright protection.  And even aside from those questions, the judge decided that Warner/Chappell had not proved that it had ever acquired that copyright.  Therefore, Warner/Chappell Music could not claim ownership of the copyright in the lyrics or music of “Happy Birthday to You.”

The plaintiffs quickly asked the court to order that Warner/Chappell return “the millions of dollars of unlawful licensing fees they have collected by wrongfully asserting copyright ownership in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”  In the meantime, Warner/Chappell appealed.  In February of this year, the parties reached a settlement in which Warner/Chappell paid $14 million and agreed to stipulate that the song (melody and lyrics) is in the public domain.

“ ‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” said Randall Newman, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The world has been made safe for little Suzy.