Most people sing “Happy Birthday to You” without even thinking it might be protected by copyright. But since 1988, Warner/Chappell Music has been enforcing its alleged copyright in the song and has collected an estimated $2 million per year in royalties.
However, on September 22, 2015, after two years of litigation, a U.S. District Court judge declared that the copyright claimed in the lyrics to the song “Happy Birthday to You” is invalid.
The lawsuit was brought by several artists against Warner/Chappell Music challenging the copyright and seeking the return of the licensing fees that have been collected.
The origins of the song date back to 1893 when two sisters wrote a song called “Good Morning to All,” which had the same melody we know today as “Happy Birthday to You.” The sisters later assigned their rights to the Clayton F. Summy Company (“Summy Company”), which registered a copyright to two works entitled “Happy Birthday to You,” one of which purportedly secured the copyright in the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics. Warner/Chappell Music later purchased the successor to Summy Company, and since then has claimed copyright for the use of the song and has entered into several licensing agreements with those who wished to use the song.
In the lawsuit, the parties did not dispute that the “Happy Birthday to You” melody had been borrowed from “Good Morning to All,” which was in the public domain, but they disagreed as to the status of the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics, the origins of which are far less clear.
The plaintiffs argued that it was possible the lyrics were written by someone else, and further argued that even if written by the sisters, their common law rights were either lost due to general publication or abandonment or were never transferred to the Summy Company. Warner/Chappell Music, however, argued that the sisters wrote the lyrics around the same time they wrote the melody, and that they transferred their common law rights to the Summy Company, which then registered the copyright.
In addressing the claims of authorship and abandonment, the judge found that the evidence was inconclusive as to whether the sisters wrote the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics. Further, the judge noted that even if the sisters were the authors, they never tried to obtain copyright protection or prevent others from using the lyrics.
On the issue of transfer, the judge examined several agreements between the sisters and the Summy Company, which showed that while they had transferred their rights to the melody, they never transferred the rights to the lyrics.
The question of the return of licensing fees was not addressed and will be presumably be set for another day. Warner/Chappell Music will likely challenge the ruling rather than face the potential of returning all the royalties it collected from a song that it never owned a valid copyright to and the loss of all future royalties.