Let ’em eat cake

Happy Birthday to You song, Good Morning to All song, copyright infringement case, ruled in public domain, song ownership, Warner/Chappell, documentarian copyright case, US copyright,

That ubiquitous Happy Birthday song has been through the mill for many years. The issue: Who owns its copyright?

I’ve been watching the Happy Birthday copyright legal drama for a while. I love copyright infringement cases. Here’s the background.

According to the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records, “Happy Birthday to You” (more commonly known as the Happy Birthday song) is the most recognized song in the English language. The song’s lyrics (or similar) have been translated into at least 18 languages.

The melody was written in 1883 based on a song titled “Good Morning to All” and the song first appeared in print around 1912. No copyright existed at that time.

In 1935, the Summy Company registered the copyright. In 1988, Warner/Chappell, a subsidiary of Warner Music, purchased the Summy Company. Based on Summy’s 1935 copyright registration, Warner/Chappell has been claiming that the US copyright wouldn’t expire until 2030 and has been collecting royalties for commercial performances of the song to the tune of roughly $1,500 on average per use. For those who did not pay for licensing – the company screamed copyright infringement and proceeded with legal action.

Happy birthday to the people, for the people

Marilyn Monroe, Happy Birthday to You song, Good Morning to All song, copyright infringement case, ruled in public domain, song ownership, Warner/Chappell, documentarian copyright case, US copyright,

Things really got rolling when filmmaker Jennifer Nelson of Good Morning To You Productions filed a lawsuit. While producing a film with the working title Happy Birthday, she was informed by Warner/Chappell that the fees to license the song would be $1,500. On 14 june 2013, her production company filed a class action lawsuit and argued that the song should be “dedicated to public use and in the public domain.” Nelson’s company was seeking monetary damages by Warner/Chappell from those who’ve paid licensing fees needlessly over the decades.

Warner/Chappell fought hard and long to have the case dismissed.

Professor Robert Brauneis of George Washington University Law School is the author of a 68-page article titled Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song. Professor Brauneis states that “it is doubtful that ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ the famous offspring of ‘Good Morning to All,’ is really still under copyright.”

No party for Warner/Chappell

The professor was right. The song’s ownership has been finalized. No one owns the Happy Birthday copyright, because of last-minute evidence presented to US District Judge George H. King in Los Angeles.

Happy Birthday to You song, Good Morning to All song, copyright infringement case, ruled in public domain, song ownership, Warner/Chappell, documentarian copyright case, US copyright,

The plaintiff’s legal team found a blurry version of the 15th edition / 1927 of The Everyday Song Book  among Warner/Chappell’s documents. In the archives of The University of Pittsburgh, they found the 1922 fourth edition that included the Happy Birthday song without any copyright notice.

Judge King’s ruling on 22 september 2015: “Happy Birthday to You” belongs in the public domain.

Happy Birthday to one and all.

Flickr: Dom Walster used under CC by 2.0. Photo: Marilyn Monroe still from The Guardian UK video

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