You may soon be able to publicly perform “Happy Birthday to You” (“Happy Birthday”) without racking up thousands in unpaid royalties to the copyright owner. The song, one of the most recognisable and widely performed in the English language, was allegedly owned by Warner-Chappell Music, a division of the Warner Music Group. As the owners in the copyright to the song, Warner-Chappell Music have allegedly been raking in up to $2 million annually in royalties paid for the use of the song.
However, a summary judgment delivered in a class action lawsuit might just have changed all of that. In a class-action lawsuit brought by would-be licensees of the song against Warner-Chappell Music, US District Court Judge George H. King has declared that the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” now belongs in the public domain, effectively extinguishing the music publisher’s ability to collect royalties from the song.
Given the antiquity of the tune, some of the facts surrounding its provenance remain unclear. The facts do however reveal that in 1893, schoolteachers Mildred and Patty Hill had composed the song “Good Morning to All”, which contained the original melody from which “Happy Birthday” was later adapted from. In 1935, the Clayton F. Summy Company (“Summy”), working with the Hill Sisters, then sought to register copyright in “Happy Birthday”. Summy, together with its copyright in “Happy Birthday” was subsequently acquired by Warner-Chappell in 1988.
As a musical work, “Happy Birthday” has two copyrightable elements – the music and the lyrics – both of which obtains independent protection. The question to be determined here was whether the copyright acquired by Warner-Chappell covered the music or the lyrics. In this case, it was undisputed that the melody to “Happy Birthday” (which was adapted from “Good Morning to All”) had entered the public domain a long time ago. Warner-Chappell could therefore only claim copyright in the lyrics to the song. In his judgment delivered on 22 September 2015 however, the Judge found that the original copyright filed by Summy covered only a specific piano arrangement of the song, and not to the song’s lyrics. In his opinion, “[because] Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, [Warner-Chappell], Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics”.
Beyond the narrow scope of the particular piano arrangement, Warner-Chappell therefore had no rights beyond which to claim royalties for use of the song. Barring the inevitable appeal, feel free to sing “Happy Birthday” to your heart’s content. For those who never knew that royalties were due, well, it’s just as well then.