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 US judge has ruled.
District Judge George King determined the song’s original copyright, obtained by the Clayton F Summy Company from the song’s writers, covered only the tune’s musical arrangement and not the lyrics.
Judge King’s decision in Los Angeles comes in a lawsuit filed two years ago by Good Morning To You Productions Corporation, which is working on a documentary film tentatively titled Happy Birthday.
The company challenged the copyright now held by Warner/Chappell Music, arguing that the song should be “dedicated to public use and in the public domain”.
The company asked for monetary damages and restitution of more than five million dollars (£3.2m) in licencing fees it said in 2013 that Warner/Chappell had collected from thousands of people and groups who paid to use the song over the years.
“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,” Judge King concluded in his 43-page ruling.
Warner/Chappell said: “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”
Although the judge did not address restitution in his ruling, he did go into great detail about the history of the song, the melody of which was taken from another popular children’s song of more than 100 years ago, Good Morning To All.
That song was written by sisters Mildred Hill and Patty Hill some time before 1893, the judge said, adding that the sisters assigned the rights to it and other songs to Clayton F Summy, who copyrighted and published them in a book Song Stories For The Kindergarten.
“The origins of the lyrics to Happy Birthday are less clear,” the judge continued, adding the first known reference to them appeared in a 1901 article in the Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal.
The full lyrics themselves, Judge King said, did not appear in print until 1911.
Since then, they have become the most famous lyrics in the English language, according to Guinness World Records. The song is also sung in countless other languages around the world.
Warner/Chappell, which eventually acquired the song’s copyright from Summy, argued that its predecessor had registered a copyright to Happy Birthday To You in 1935 that gave it the rights to all of the song.
“Our record does not contain any contractual agreement from 1935 or before between the Hill sisters and Summy Co concerning the publication and registration of these works,” the judge said.