After a publicized legal battle, a U.S. District court has ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” — apparently, the most popular song in the English language — is “potentially free from copyright” and should be considered part of the public domain.
Federal judge George H. King ruled in the suit that the copyright first filed by the Clayton F. Summy Company in 1935 only applied to a specific arrangement of the song, not the entire song itself. Moreover, the judge ruled that Summy never even acquired the rights to the song’s lyrics, and that the defendants’ objections were “implausible and unreasonable.” Per the ruling: “Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”
Warner/Chappell Music has been licensing the song since 1988, when they purchased Summy’s successor, Birchtree Ltd., for a reported $25M. The company has been collecting approximately $2M a year in licensing revenue on the song. It’s those fees that have long kept smaller productions from using the classic song in their projects. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, “unless something happens at an appellate court or unless someone else comes forward with a valid claim of ownership to the song, filmmakers like director Jennifer Nelson — who sued in 2013 over demands as much as six figures to license — will no longer have to pay to feature ‘Happy Birthday’ in motion pictures and television shows.”
The song is attributed to sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill, who penned it in the late 19th century. The sisters eventually assigned their rights to the song’s melody to Clayton Summy. As the judgement reads: “Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record. The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics.”
“We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options,” said a Warner/Chappell spokesperson said of the ruling, which many expect them to contest.
Without this week’s court judgement, “Happy Birthday to You” would not have been available in the public domain in the U.S. until 2030, and in the EU until December 31, 2016.