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“Happy Birthday” copyright ruled invalid, song falls into public domain

Federal judge determines Warner/Chappell has no claim to song's ownership

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    A federal judge has ruled that the world’s most popular English language song is free from copyright.

    On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge George H. King sided with Jennifer Nelson, owner of Good Morning to You Productions, in her suit against Warner/Chappell over the label’s ownership, or lack thereof of the song “Happy Birthday”.

    “Happy Birthday” is believed to have been written in the 19th century by a schoolteacher named Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred Hill. Warner/Chappell has long argued that the Hill sisters assigned the rights of the song to a publishing company owned by Clayton Summy, which then registered both the piano arrangement and lyrics for copyright in 1935.

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    However, Judge King rejected Warner/Chappell’s claim of ownership, saying the rights were never properly transferred as it’s unclear whether the registration included 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 judge wrote in his opinion. “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.”

    The ruling leaves “Happy Birthday” without copyright and thus part of the public domain, meaning Warner/Chappell will lose out on $2 million a year on reported revenue for the licensing of the song. As the below video illustrates, filmmakers have long opted to use alternative versions of the song as a way to avoid paying the licensing fee.

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    Additionally, those who have paid licensing fees in the past could potentially sue Warner/Chappell for reimbursement.

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