Happy Birthday To All! (Except Warner/Chappell Music)
Legal News & Analysis – Asia Pacific - India - Intellectual Property
12 October, 2015
The Happy Birthday song is touted as the most popular song in the world. Not only is it the go-to anthem for birthday celebrations, but has also been accorded the status of the ‘most recognized song in the English language’ by the Guinness World Records in 1998. The song which has been translated in 18 different languages generates exorbitant revenue of approximately $2 million in royalties every year. This often invokes the controversial question – who owns its copyright? The recent decision in Rupa Marya et al vs Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.et al., by the District court of California has declared that the ‘Happy Birthday’ song is now entirely in public domain. The court held that the copyright which Warner/Chappell had been claiming over the song for almost 120 years was veritably invalid. This decision came amidst a lawsuit challenging Warner/Chappell’s attempt to fine filmmakers who intended to use the song for the purpose of making a documentary on it.
Tracing the song’s history back to the 19th century, the classic melody of ‘Happy Birthday’ was the same as that of another song called ‘Good Morning to All’, composed by the American Hill sisters – Patty and Mildred who sung it in primary schools. It was a part of the book called ‘Song Stories for the Kindergarten’, which was published in 1893 by a man named Clayton F. Summy (hereinafter Summy’s Co.), who was assigned the rights to the manuscript containing Good Morning and other songs. After Mildred’s death, the third Hill sister, Jessica, one of the heirs, renewed the copyright to Song Stories protecting it till 1949. The origins of the Happy Birthday song are very obscure. Its very first reference appeared in an article from 1901, without its complete lyrics. Publication of the full ‘Happy Birthday’ song first occurred in a book titled ‘The Elementary Worker and His Work’ in 1911, where no authorship was accredited, but it was mentioned that Happy Birthday and Good Morning share the same tune. This book was registered for a copyright and thereafter several other publications with the song started emerging. The highlight of the whole copyright controversy surrounding this song is its lyrics, the origins of which remain unknown.
In the present suit, Warner/Chappell Music claimed that Patty was the author of the lyrics and that rights were acquired from Summy’s Co. in 1980’s (since the Hill sisters had assigned their rights to him), hence asserting to own the copyright to the song in its entirety. Rupa Marya, the plaintiff, on the other hand, countered that author of lyrics is unknown, and that copyrights for the song were ‘expired, forfeited or invalid’ as they did not embody ‘original works of ownership’, except the piano arrangement.
The court declared that distinction between the music and lyrics as copyrightable elements is critical in the present case and further established that the melody of the song came from ‘Good Morning to All’, by the Hill sisters, the said song being in public domain for several years. Also, the records purported that neither Patty, Mildred, nor Jessica ever tried to protect their common law rights in the lyrics. For decades, with the possible exception of the publication of ‘The Elementary Worker and His Work’, the Hill sisters did not authorize any publication of the lyrics and no federal copyright protection was obtained. Despite ‘Happy Birthday’ being extremely popular and commercially viable, no legal action was taken to prevent the use of lyrics.
In 1934, four decades after Patty supposedly wrote the song, the rights were finally bestowed on the melody of Good Morning to All/Happy Birthday. Even then the claims were not pertaining to the lyrics. Thus, it was decided that since Summy’s Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, its apparent successors-in-interest, Warner/Chappell did not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday song. Moreover, the Hill sisters gave Summy’s Co. the rights to the melody and piano arrangement only.
Accordingly, the copyright registration relied on covers only the particular piano arrangements of the song and not the underlying lyrics.
This judgment renders the Birthday song free from the clutches of copyrights. Films and TV shows can now finally go on birthday merriment with this song without worrying about royalties or fines.
 Case No. CV 13-4460-GHK (MRWx) , available at < https://assets.documentcloud.org/ documents/2429288/ marya-v-warner-chappell.pdf> (Last viewed on 28 September 2015)
“Happy Birthday song and its strange past” available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/news/Happy-Birthday-song-and-its-strange-past/>(Last viewed on 29 September 2015)
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Shristi Bansal, LexOrbis