You Are Free to Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ – Warner’s Copyright Claim Rejected

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‘Happy Birthday’ song is considered to be the most sung song in the world. The song is not only rendered on birthdays, but also captured in various forms such as sound recordings, videos, etc. A search on YouTube with the phrase, ‘Happy Birthday’, yields About 3,770,000 results, indicating its popularity. The ‘Happy Birthday’ song includes two elements, lyrics and musical composition. Simply put, it includes the words and the tune.


 

 

Warner/Chappell Music was claiming copyright ownership of the lyrics, and has been earning an estimated  (2) million dollars in revenue, per year from licensing. Warner/Chappell claims to be the successor-in-interest of earlier copyright owner, Summy Co., which acquired the copyright from the authors, Mildred Hill and Patty Hill. Warner/Chapell claims that the copyright in the lyrics was transferred to Summy Co. in 1935.

 The plaintiffs in the case before the California District Court , Rupa Marya, et al., contested the copyright validity and transfer of ownership in ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics  to Summy Co. They argued that the lyrics hold no valid copyright today, and that no ownership vests with Warner/Chappell by virtue of an assignment. Various documents such as copyright registrations, transfer agreements, publications, licenses and proceedings of a copyright suit were reviewed.

After reviewing the evidence on record, Judge King concluded as follows:

“The summary judgment record shows that there are triable issues of fact as to whether Patty wrote the Happy Birthday lyrics in the late Nineteenth Century and whether Mildred may have shared an interest in them as a co-author. Even assuming this is so, neither Patty nor Mildred nor Jessica ever did anything with their common law rights in the lyrics. For decades, with the possible exception of the publication of The Everyday Song Book in 1922, the Hill sisters did not authorize any publication of the lyrics. They did not try to obtain federal copyright protection. They did not take legal action to prevent the use of the lyrics by others, even as Happy Birthday became very popular and commercially valuable. In 1934, four decades after Patty supposedly wrote the song, they finally asserted their rights to the Happy Birthday/Good Morning melody—but still made no claim to the lyrics.

Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record. The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics. Defendants’ speculation, that the pleadings in the Hill-Summy lawsuit somehow show that the Second Agreement involved a transfer of rights in the lyrics is implausible and unreasonable. Defendants’ suggestion that the Third Agreement effected such a transfer is circular and fares no better. As far as the record is concerned, even if the Hill sisters still held common law rights by the time of the Second or Third Agreement, they did not give those rights to Summy Co.

In light of the foregoing, Defendants’ Motion is DENIED and Plaintiffs’ Motion is GRANTED as set forth above. 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. “

By virtue of the judgment, the ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ lyrics can be rendered commercially without any fear of copyright infringement, and without the need to pay any royalty. Though complex in many ways, the judgment would be a good read for students looking to learn:

  • Works and Rights;
  • Validity of Registration and importance of consistency in authorship;
  • Copyright divesting by Publication;
  • Forfeiture and Abandonment of copyright;
  • Validity of transfer of ownership; and
  • Joint Authorship.

Reference: Rupa Marya, et al., Plaintiffs v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., et al., Case 2:13-cv-04460-GHK-MRW, pages 42, 43