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Federal Judge Copyright Ruling- All Happy Birthday Song Copyright Claims Are Invalid

We talked about the Happy Birthday Copyright controversy in a previous post last month. Since then you may have recently heard that a federal judge has finally made a ruling…All Happy Birthday copyright claims are invalid.

Since all claims are invalid now, none of the companies that have collected royalties on the “Happy Birthday” song the last 80 years held a valid copyright.

Judge George H. King ruled that Warner/Chappell never had the right to charge for the use of the “Happy Birthday to You” song, even though Warner had been enforcing a copyright since 1988, when it bought Birch Tree Group.  That group is the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co, which claimed the original disputed copyright.  The copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 only granted rights to specific piano arrangements of the music, not the actual song.

Attorney Randall Newman for the plaintiff said “Happy Birthday is finally free after 80 years.” “Finally, the charade is over.  It’s unbelievable.”

Given all the money that has been collected over the years for this song it may be no surprise that a spokesman for Warner/Chappell (publishing arm of Warner Music)  said “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”

Warner has been asking (and collecting) royalties from anyone who wanted to sing or play “Happy Birthday to You” with lyrics as  part of a profit-making enterprise e.g. tv shows, stage productions, movies, and greeting card. Even restaurant owners who allowed employees to sing happy birthday to customers technically had to pay to use the song.  That is why many restaurant chains came up with different renditions of the song to try and avoid paying royalties.

Two filmmaker plaintiffs paid $1,500 and $3,000 for the rights to use the song.  Another Filmmaker Steve James paid Warner $5,000 to use the song in a 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” for only 9 seconds.

Who would have thought a song created in 1893 with a Kentucky schoolteacher and her older sister (Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill) for Patty’s kindergarten students called “Good Morning To All” would have become one of the most famous and profitable songs.

The song has been bringing in about $2 million annually in royalties for Warner according to some estimates.


The plaintiff’s attorneys have reportedly been trying to qualify the lawsuit as class-action to try to recoup millions of dollars in licensing fees Warner/Chappell has collected on that song over the years. They will pursue royalties paid since “at least” 1988 and may try to collect all the way back to 1935.

A third of the profits from licensing the song do still go to a designated charity of the Hill family, the Association for Childhood Education International (promotes global education efforts for children and professional growth of educators). The 2012 nonprofit tax return in 2012 indicates $754,108 royalties were received.

Although Warner could request an appeal of judge King’s decision, they have not definitively communicated if they will do so at this point.









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