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Rights in “Happy Birthday to You” Resolved in Settlement — $14 Million in Copyright Infringement Awards Returned

Good Morning To You Productions v. Warner/Chappell Music Inc.

When you gather with friends or family to celebrate birthdays, you probably never considered that that famous song you sing them was “owned” by anyone. No worries; you can now sing “Happy Birthday” to someone in public without potentially being sued for royalties. A federal district court in California has held that Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. can no longer claim a copyright on the song. The ruling is part of a class action settlement in which the music publishing giant will have to repay $14 million in copyright infringement awards it has collected over the years.

The song, which is the most widely recognized composition in the English language, was allegedly composed in the late 19th century by a schoolteacher and her sister, and was originally entitled “Good Morning to All” and contained different lyrics. The “Happy Birthday” lyrics and music were first put into print beginning in 1911, but neither the words nor the melody were ever definitively or consistently attributed to anyone. The rights to the song were acquired from the sisters by the Clayton Summy Co., which was much later acquired by Warner.

One of the plaintiffs in this case is a filmmaker, Jennifer N., who had to pay a $1,500 licensing fee to Warner to use the song in a documentary she made about “Happy Birthday.” In the putative class action, the plaintiff argued, on behalf of other licensees, that Warner could not claim copyright to a song that is so old and has been sung for over a century, and which had been published in different forms decades before the Summy Co. filed for the copyright in 1935.  U.S. District Judge George H. King agreed, ruling that the most Warner could lay claim to is a particular piano arrangement for the song which was part of the original Summy rights, not the Happy Birthday lyrics or melody. The judge held that Warner could not trace an unbroken chain of rights in the lyrics or melody all the way back to the original authors, and therefore could not meet its burden of proving a valid interest in the song.

The judge concluded that it could not be determined exactly when the “Happy Birthday” lyrics were put to the familiar melody, or even who wrote them.

Warner had charged up to $10,000 for the rights to use the song in films and has vigorously pursued copyright infringement claims for its use since 1988, when it acquired Summy Co.’s parent company. Royalties for commercial use of “Happy Birthday” have brought Warner several million dollars a year.

As part of the lawsuit, Jennifer N. asked the court to have the song declared in the public domain. That declaratory judgment is awaiting the final settlement approval by King expected in June 2016, but the effect of denying Warner copyright for the song is believed by some to make it it de facto part of the public domain.

Sources:

You can finally sing Happy Birthday without owing Warner money


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Birthday_to_You#2013_lawsuit

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/warner-music-pays-14-million-863120

https://ia601904.us.archive.org/13/items/gov.uscourts.cacd.564772/gov.uscourts.cacd.564772.244.0.pdfSuper Lawyers named Illinois business trial attorneys Peter Lubin and Vincent DiTommaso Super Lawyers in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation and Consumer Rights Litigation. DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle’s Illinois business trial lawyers have over a quarter of century of experience in litigating complex class action, copyright, non-compete agreement, trademark and libel suits, consumer rights and many different types of business and commercial litigation disputes.  Our Plainfield and Romeoville business dispute lawyers handle emergency business law suits involving copyrights, trademarks, injunctions, and TROS, covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud. You can contact us by calling (630) 333-0000 or our toll free number (877) 990-4990.  You can also contact us online here.