Happy Birthday Copyright Claim

Law

A US Federal Court has ruled that a copyright claim over the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” was invalid.

The song, which has origins dating back to the late 19th century, apparently started life as “Good Morning to All” with a similar melody to that we know today.  It was published by two sisters in a songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten.  Different reports suggest that the lyrics changed to Happy Birthday sometime in the early 20th century. 

Several specific arrangements of the song emerged years later, and through various changes in ownership from the original publisher, copyright ownership was asserted by Warner/Chappell Music.  Warner/Chappell claimed copyright royalties for every use in film, television, radio, anywhere open to the public or any group where those in attendance are mostly not family nor friends of whoever is performing the song.   The amounts collected were sizable (estimated at several thousand dollars per day).

Following a claim against Warner/Chappell by a filmmaker who had paid a sum to use the song in a documentary, which claim was joined by others who had had paid royalties in previous years, the US Judge ruled that Warner/Chappell’s claim was invalid.  The copyright they held applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song, and not its lyrics or melody per se.  The company failed to prove that it actually ever held the copyright in the lyrics. 
No announcement has yet been made as to whether Warner/Chappell will appeal, nor whether royalties received in previous years will have to be paid back.