Music Company Does Not Own ‘Happy Birthday’ Song Copyright, Judge Rules

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Happy Birthday’ song in public domain, federal judge rules.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The music publishing company that has been collecting royalties on the song “Happy Birthday To You” for years does not hold a valid copyright on the lyrics to the tune that is one of the mostly widely sung in the world, a federal judge ruled Tuesday. US district judge George H King ruled on Tuesday the copyright originally filed by the Clayton F Summy Co in 1935 applied to a specific arrangement of the song, not the tune itself.

It’s unbelievable.” Among the plaintiffs was film-maker Jennifer Nelson, who was told she would have to pay $1,500 USD in order to include Happy Birthday in a documentary she was making about its history. Jay Morgenstern, then executive vice president of the Warner Chappell Music Group, told the New York Times a year after the acquisition the song had proved “a very good investment”. It’s unbelievable.” A spokesman for Warner/Chappell, the publishing arm of Warner Music, said, “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.” The plaintiffs’ attorneys had characterized the years-long legal fight as a David vs. Up until now, Warner has asked for royalties from anyone who wanted to sing or play “Happy Birthday to You” — with the lyrics — as part of a profit-making enterprise. The fact that the birthday tune can’t be played or sung without permission from Warner has been little more than a surprising piece of trivia for most, but for Warner Music Group, it has meant big business.

Filmmaker Steve James paid Warner $5,000 to use the song in his 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.” “It was quite expensive for us at that time and with our budget. Warner and the plaintiffs both agreed that the melody of the familiar song, first written as “Good Morning To All,” had entered the public domain decades ago. At various turns in the case, attorneys argued over whether the Hill sisters had actually written the song, whether they had “abandoned” their rights to what became the “Happy Birthday” tune and even whether Patty Smith Hill had been accurately quoted in a 1935 Time magazine article about the song. Rifkin, one of Nelson’s attorneys, said the plaintiffs will pursue Warner for royalties paid since “at least” 1988, and could also ask the company to re-pay royalties that have been collected all the way back to 1935.

A third of the profits from licensing the song still go to a designated charity of the Hill family, the Association for Childhood Education International, which promotes global education efforts for children and the professional growth of educators.

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