Sing “Happy Birthday to You” Without Fear of Infringement

April 11, 2016

My family has a myriad of birthdays in March and April, and now, thanks to a lawsuit judgment, we can sing “Happy Birthday to You” in a public place without fear of copyright infringement.

Warner/Chappell, a global music publishing company who claimed to hold the copyright to “Happy Birthday To You,” will pay $14 million to settle a lengthy class action lawsuit over rights to the song, according to court documents released February 8, 2016.

The settlement comes after United States District Judge George H. King ruled in September that Warner/Chappell’s copyright on the song was invalid. King, however, decided that their copyright was not valid because the original 1935 copyright of “Happy Birthday” applied only to a specific piano arrangement. In addition, “Happy Birthday to You” borrows its melody from “Good Morning to All,” the 1893 song, which has long been in the public domain.

At the time, however, King did not declare “Happy Birthday” to be in the public domain. Warner/Chappell was mulling a challenge to the ruling and a new trial delving into the history of the song — written by sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill — was scheduled to begin in December when the two sides reached an agreement. Furthermore, the settlement only stipulates a proposed final judgement and official order that would make the song free for all. 

Warner had been collecting royalties on the song since the 1980s when it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original copyright. It is estimated that Warner/Chappell has made about $2 million a year in royalties from the song. By one estimate, the song is the highest earning single song in history, with estimated earnings since its creation of $50 million. (Mohan, Isabel (December 29, 2012). “The Richest Songs in the World, BBC Four, Review”. The Telegraph (London). Retrieved September 23,2015.)

A group of filmmakers sued the song’s owner, Warner/Chappell in 2013 arguing that the melody has been in the public domain for more than 65 years, and that nobody knows who wrote the familiar “Happy Birthday” lyrics, but since the public was singing those lyrics in the early 1900s, before the copyrights were registered, the song had become a public work.  

Warner/Chappell had expected to hold on to the rights to “Happy Birthday” until 2030, during which time it was estimated the song would bring in between $14 million and $16.5 million. By settling, the publishing giant was also able to avoid a trial to determine whether it should be punished for collecting fees on the song for over 25 years. It’s estimated Warner/Chappell has collected more than $50 million in licensing fees.

The initial class action suit against Warner/Chappell was brought by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was making a documentary about “Happy Birthday” when she was slapped with a $1,500 licensing fee. Lawyers for the plaintiffs will seek a third of the $14 million fee, while the rest will be divided among those who paid the proper fees for “Happy Birthday” in the past and met the other criteria of the proposed class.

The song’s base lyrics have been translated into at least 18 languages. The melody of “Happy Birthday to You” comes from the song “Good Morning to All which has been attributed to American sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill in 1893, although the claim that the sisters composed the tune is disputed.

Patty Hill was a kindergarten principal in Louisville, Kentucky, developing various teaching methods at what is now the Little Loomhouse;[6] her sister Mildred was a pianist and composer. The sisters used “Good Morning to All” as a song that young children would find easy to sing. The combination of melody and lyrics in “Happy Birthday to You” first appeared in print in 1912, and probably existed even earlier.

CCS’s Founder and CVO, Susan Fontaine Godwin is an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 30 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management. Susan is an author and speaker and frequently writes for several Christian magazines and online publications. She serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Mobile.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.”  CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration and advocacy for copyright owners. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.

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