Singing Happy Birthday No Longer Costs a Pretty Penny

A US Court has today ruled that the company collecting royalties for ‘Happy Birthday To You’ does not hold a valid copyright to the song.

The tune was composed by two sisters in Kentucky in 1893, who called their version Good Morning To All, which later evolved into the song that is popularly sung at birthday parties around the world. The copyright to the song was originally filed in 1935 and was later purchased by Warner/Chappell in 1988. Warner/Chappell have been collecting fees since this date by charging every time the song was used in a film, television episode, advertisement or other public performance. It is said that they have collected on average around $2 million per year.

In 2013, two filmmakers began making a documentary about the song and were astonished when they were asked by Warner to stump up the sum of $1,500  for the right to use Happy Birthday To You in the film. They filed a lawsuit against Warner and argued that the song was in the public domain and should not be subject to copyright fees.

The court held that nobody has ever acquired copyright to the song's lyrics and it was just the rights to the melody that were filed in 1935. Therefore, Warner are unable to claim any royalty payments as they have been doing since 1988.

Despite the ruling, the song still remains under copyright in the UK and it remains to be seen as what impact of this ruling may be on use of the song outside the US. As some parts of the song (i.e. the melody) are still subject to maximum copyright protection, persons wishing to use the song in media productions should continue to tread carefully.

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If you require any advice on copyright disputes, please do not hesitate to contact the Commercial Litigation team.

Although correct at the time of publication, the contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article. Please contact us for the latest legal position.