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.”
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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.