‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ LAWSUIT
Filmmakers and a musician have joined forces to fight in support of an American tradition – a tradition, which they believe, belongs to the public. “Happy Birthday to You,” arguably one of the most popular songs of all time, is currently the center of a legal dispute between parties warring over the song’s copyright ownership. In the summer of 2013, plaintiffs filed a suit against Warner/Chappell Music, challenging the company’s ownership claim over the song. The suit claims that “Happy Birthday to You” is currently in the public domain and has been since 1921 at the very latest; yet, Warner/Chappell has continually collected license fees for use of the song.
The song in fact has a long history dating back to 1893, when sisters Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill wrote a manuscript for sheet music that included a song entitled, “Good Morning to All.” It was only later, in the early part of the 20th century, that the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” were adapted to the melody of the original song, “Good Morning to All.” After that, the song’s history becomes much murkier and is often contested; however, it is known that Birch Tree Hill ultimately claimed ownership of the song and in 1998 Warner/Chappell acquired Birch Tree Hill.
Now, despite Warner/Chappell’s efforts to dismiss the case, U.S. District Judge George H. King has decided to allow the plaintiffs’ claims to press forward. Judge King ruled that he will be addressing each of two primary issues in turn – first, whether Warner/Chappell even has ownership over the song; and, if it does, whether other legal claims are viable (such as whether the company has violated California’s unfair competition laws or breach of contract).
Attorneys for Warner/Chappell have said that they plan to provide evidence of a 1935 copyright registration for “Happy Birthday to You,” covering both the lyrics as well as the piano arrangements. However, the suit’s plaintiffs argue that because the song’s lyrics were not original in 1935, the song could never have been copyrighted at that time. Furthermore, the plaintiffs assert that any 1935 copyright is solely limited to the piano arrangements. Currently, the suit asks that Warner/Chappell return all fees that it has collected for the song over the course of the past four years. George Washington University School of Law Professor Rober Brauneis, author of an article titled “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song,” said that “it is doubtful that ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ . . . is really still under copyright.” Brauneis further explained that because the song is so “economically significant,” producing “millions of dollars of income in a year,” it is likely that the potential success of this lawsuit could pave the way for challenges to other similar songs.
The plaintiffs also seek to certify the suit as a class action, an issue that has yet to be resolved by Judge King, but one which relies on the plaintiff’s contention that Warner/Chappell has collected millions in fees over the years for a song that the plaintiffs allege the company does not own. Current plaintiffs include the lead singer of the band Rupa & The April Fishes, the writer/director of the 2009 film, “Big Fan,” as well as Good Morning to You Productions, the makers of a documentary about the very song in question.