Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property » ‘Happy Birthday’ song copyright is not valid, judge rules

‘Happy Birthday’ song copyright is not valid, judge rules

23 September 2015

From The Los Angeles Times:

In a stunning reversal of decades of copyright claims, a federal judge in Los Angeles has ruled that Warner/Chappell Music does not hold a valid copyright claim to the “Happy Birthday To You” song.

Warner had been enforcing its copyright claim since it paid $15 million to buy Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which owned the original copyright. The song brings in about $2 million a year in royalties for Warner, according to some estimates.

Judge George H. King ruled Tuesday afternoon that a copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific arrangements of the music, not the actual song.

“Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics,” wrote King, “Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”

. . . .

Up until now, Warner has charged anyone who wanted to sing or play “Happy Birthday to You” — with the lyrics — as part of a profit-making enterprise. Most often, this occurred with stage productions, on television, in movies or in greeting cards. But even those who wanted to sing the song publicly as part of a business, say a restaurant owner giving out free birthday cake to patrons, would technically have to pay to use the song.

The complex saga of this six-note ditty has spanned more than 120 years, withstanding two world wars and several eras of copyright law. The song has seen the rise and fall of vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs and now, the era of digital streaming music. 

. . . .

Tuesday’s ruling means that the song is now considered a public work and is free for everyone to use without fear of having to pay royalties, according to a statement from the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker and owner of Good Morning to You productions who was among the plaintiffs, called the decision a “great victory for musicians, artists and people around the world who have waited decades for this.”

The plaintiff’s attorneys have said that they will move next to qualify the lawsuit as a class-action, in an effort to recoup millions of dollars in royalties that Warner/Chappell has collected on the tune over the years.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times and thanks to Ric and others  for the tip.

Copyright/Intellectual Property

19 Comments to “‘Happy Birthday’ song copyright is not valid, judge rules”

  1. I’m just hoping for an end to the restaurant-specific birthday songs.

  2. Took ’em long enough … 😉

  3. 1 piece of Americana finally releases into the public domain, several zillion to go.

    But HB is a pretty big piece.

    • Nope. The ruling only said that Warner/Chappell did not hold the copyright. It did not say that no one owned that copyright; that was left open.

      • Ayup. I now begin to hold my breath that the next evolution of the Happy Birthday Saga will bring some clarity to laws regarding orphan works.

        Personally, I hope it involves something like copyright-on-registration rather than copyright-on-publication… though I do concede that this mostly switches to a different set of problems, rather than eliminate them. Maybe it’s a case of the grass looking greener, they seem to be a more tractable set of problems as far as I can tell… though again, I concede that these new problems do weight the law (unfairly?) against new players who may not understand the costs of publishing before registering.

        And I have no idea how it would go from an international perspective. Registration required in every country that you publish? Stupid internet. Would the UN take over copyright registrations… would any country stand for that?

  4. Now for the Hollywood movie with Justin Timberlake as the lawyer fighting for Happy Birthday to be public domain.

  5. Worth noting that most of the places reporting this story get it wrong. The court didn’t rule Happy Birthday is in the public domain. (Well, the music is, but not the lyrics.)

    The court ruled that it’s unclear who wrote the lyrics (and called that a “triable issue”—that is to say, if someone stepped forward claiming they did it, there would have to be a trial to determine the veracity of their claim), but the people Warner claimed write the lyrics, and licensed the lyrics to them, didn’t.

    It’s a small difference, but an important one. People who use “Happy Birthday” could still end up on the hook to someone, if it can be proved who did write the lyrics and they did so after 1923. And as much money as involved, you never know. Someone might be willing to step forward to take a crack at it now that (or once) Warner’s legal team is out of the way.

  6. Yay.

  7. I think this case will focus some attention on the question of how long is too long for copyright to last. Which is an issue that needs to be considered as IP evolves with the technology.

    • While I agree wholeheartedly with your second statement, I don’t think your first can be true; the courts don’t (can’t) write the law, they simply interpret it.

      If you mean that people will push the question so congress looks at it… maybe. Probably not, if this keeps getting misreported as the lyrics being in the public domain as a result of this case.

  8. This is not over yet. Too much money involved.

  9. Yet another absurdity bites the dust. What is the world coming to? Rationality? How banal.

  10. lol, billions of people were ‘black birthday-ers’ for eons and sang it anyway. Im more concerned about the patents on pharmaceuticals protecting predatory pricing by driving them sky high at the preening ill-will of greed-larded ceos.

    • Not just patents. Exclusive distribution rights to a product that people depend on to survive in a market that’s too small for market forces to bear much weight… leads to perversions of humanity like Martin Shkreli being able to do what he does.

      • Shkreli has closed his twitter account after bragging about how he ‘had to’ raise the price of the pill that many AIDs patients take, from 13.50 a pill to $750.50 a pill. The man is imo a larcenist, as he was apparently counting on medicare, and other insurances to kick in at least 80% to pay for his incredibly indecent greed.

        After he was lambasted left and right and his company attacked by various who trheatened to boycott all his drug holdings in favor of others, he whined that all this money he was going to receive by hiking the cost of this one lifesparing drug for people with HIV, would now not be able to go to r and d, to develop new wonderful drugs.

        He thought people were stupid enough to believe his drivel. But most of us know developing drugs is like having a boat… a hole in the water you throw endless amounts of money into until maybe, MAYBE you come up with a ride that needs no repair.

        This guy imo, belongs with the dentist who killed a practically tame and tagged lion on ‘safari’ in Africa, by luring it from its protective reserve. There’s a special place in Hades…

        • Let’s not forget that this pill was until very recently profitable at $1ea, and still is nearly everywhere but the USA.

          The worst part of this whole debacle is that he has likely made out like a bandit from this personally, by shorting pharma stocks in anticipation of the stock shock.

          Anyway, happy birthday is one step closer to the public domain, and probably close enough for all intents and purposes, so I’m going to focus on the good news now.

          • I read an article by someone who decided to look beyond the outrage. Now I can’t find it again.

            But in short, Daraprim isn’t widely prescribed, most who must have it are protected against massive price hikes because of government oversight, and there are several, far cheaper antibiotics that are as effective against toxo-whatever-it-is.

            Yeah, the guy’s a douchebag, but his price hike wasn’t going to affect many.

            • Agreeing with USAF below, but I’m not sure that it even affects few.

              But in short, Daraprim isn’t widely prescribed, most who must have it are protected against massive price hikes because of government oversight

              Protected against massive price hikes? If the government is footing the bill for the price hike, then that’s on ALL tax payers. Same applies to health insurance, in the form of insurance premiums.

              and there are several, far cheaper antibiotics that are as effective against toxo-whatever-it-is.

              I know it’s pretty common to give antibiotic screens to people with temporary reduced immune response, but I don’t think that would work out well for the average AIDS sufferer.

              And if true, then Shkreli wouldn’t be saying a 5000+% price hike was a good business decision, since he’d basically be killing the drug that his company just paid fifty five mil-do for exclusive distribution rights for, in favour of these “cheaper, as effective” alternatives.

              Externally, this appears to be a case of a douchebag gouging a bunch of other people, therefore it’s someone else’s problem… Internally, it turns into a variant on the scheme whereby you all can give me a dollar, it’s a trivial impact on your life so where’s the problem?

              There is no way to cut Shkreli’s actions that doesn’t inspire outrage.

  11. affecting even one, in life and death challenges, is one too many. Especially tested, if that person is you or someone you cherish. Greed is excused at many levels in many many cultures, in terms of abusing the poor and withholding health and safety from the vulnerable, and like Than Shwe, jacking prices so the poor cannot afford basics. This predatory love of lucre ought be slammed to the mat, along with those mongers who use, demean, degrade others for personal gain.

    This from Forbes, yesterday, with more to come, much more:
    ” Infectious disease doctors say this is an important compound for vulnerable patients with weakened immune systems who need help fighting toxoplasmosis parasitic infections. Patients apparently have no good alternative to Turing’s Daraprim.

    This price increase was an unjustifiable and excessive move. When John Carroll, a respected biotech industry journalist asked for an explanation, Shkreli called him a “moron.” Biotech stocks fell as investors feared a legislative anti-pharma backlash. BIO and PhRMA trade groups sought to distance themselves. The BBC inquired…” Google for the rest; there are several articles in Forbes, Wall St Journo, etc, and they are sometimes behind pay walls.

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