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Copyright in 'Happy Birthday to You'

To the surprise of most, Warner/Chappel Music Inc. purports to own title to copyright in the lyrics for the song "Happy Birthday to You" and has, until recently, collected royalties for their use, mostly in the form of license fees collected from various film productions in which the song is performed and recorded.

However, this revenue stream MAY have finally ended. In a decision released September 22, 2015, the United States District Court for the Central District of California declared that Warner/Chappel Music Inc. had never in fact acquired valid title to copyright in the lyrics: CASE NO. CV 13-4460-GHK (MRWx).

In its summary of the facts, the court found that the melody for the song, originally entitled "Good Morning to All", was written by Mildred and Patty Hill some time prior to 1893 when copyright in the melody was assigned to Clayton Summy. Mr. Summy registered copyright in the song in 1935 and it is that copyright registration on which Warner/Chappel Music Inc. rely to assert its title to copyright in the lyrics as his successor in title.

It was "unclear", however, whether Mr. Summy acquired and registered title to both the melody and the lyrics for "Happy Birthday to You" or just the melody. Although it was agreed by all parties that copyright in the melody has expired long ago, Warner/Chappel Music Inc. claimed that copyright in the lyrics would not expire in the United States until 2030.

The "happy birthday" lyrics have a suspect history. The lyrics did not appear in print until sometime around 1910 and their authorship is not known for certain although Patty Hill later claimed to have written them at around the same time as the original song "Good Morning to All". Of course, the credibility of this claim may be considered suspicious in light of the fact that it was not asserted until 40 years later after the lyrics became popular.

In the end, the court found that, even if Patty Hill was the original author and first owner of copyright in the "happy birthday" lyrics, there was no evidence on the record that she ever transferred those rights to Mr. Summy. 

The court therefore found that:

Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, [Warner/Chappel Music Inc.], as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.

So, although the court refused to declare the lyrics to be in the public domain, he did determine that Warner/Chappel Music Inc. is not the owner of copyright to whom royalties must be paid. Of course, this is not the end of the matter as an appeal is expected.