Happy Birthday is now a public work, according to plaintiffs in a lawsuit out of California, as reported by NPR and the Los Angeles Times. A federal district judge for the Central District of California has ruled that Warner/Chappell Music, which has claimed rights to the song since the 1980s, does not actually hold a copyright to the lyrics. According to the Times, the group has been collecting royalties on the song from anyone using it in a profit-making setting, including film, TV and greeting cards. This has amounted to approximately 2 million dollars a year in revenue. The need for permission to use the song is also what has prompted many restaurant chains to come up with alternative versions conveying birthday cheer to patrons.
The judge examined the history of the song, which began with a Kentucky teacher in the 1890s who wrote a song called "Good Morning to All," with the melody of what we know as "Happy Birthday to You." The sisters published the song and assigned the copyright to publisher Clayton F. Summy Co. The rights were transferred over time, ultimately landing with Warner in the 1980s.
The parties agreed that the melody was in the public domain, but Warner claimed that it still owned the rights to the lyrics. The court found that it wasn't clear that the sisters had written the lyrics, and that they never actually asserted a copyright claim to them. The court also found that the original publisher did not legally obtain the rights to "Happy Birthday to You."
The plaintiffs plan to attempt to certify the case as a class action to try to recoup royalties paid over a period of time. In the meantime, it currently seems that Happy Birthday is now free to all, although it remains unclear, who, if anyone, may actually own the rights.
Image via Pixabay.