As I am writing this article, I am looking forward to a family dinner to celebrate my mother’s birthday. I’m always entertained to hear the song that the wait staff has been taught for birthdays. Growing up I never understood why they didn’t just sing “Happy Birthday to You” like everyone else. I eventually learned that it was because of a Copyright claim.
See for a long time, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. and Summy Birchard, Inc. have claimed to own the rights to “Happy Birthday to You”. Reports suggest that they made some $2 million in royalties every year from this song. A few years back Rupa Marya, Robert Siegel, Good Morning to You Productions Corp., and Majar Productions, LLC decided to challenge Warner/Chappell’s claim to the song.
The tune was originally created by Mildred and Patty Hill for a song called “Good Morning to You” it was published in “Song Stories for the Kindergarten” in 1893, which subsequently lost copyright protection in 1949. The lyrics of “Happy Birthday to You” are of unknown origin.
The Hill sisters entered into a number of agreements with the Clayton F. Summy Company transferring many of their copyrights including those in Song Stories for the Kindergarten. In 1935 the Summy Company registered copyrights in two works entitled “Happy Birthday to You”. This led to law suits regarding what the Hill sisters had assigned to the Summy Company and what they had not, which were eventually settled out of court. However, none of these claims actually dealt conclusively with the issue of the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You”.
Majar Productions’ team had argued that Warner/Chappell never actually owned the rights to the song “Happy Birthday to You” and that the song should have entered into the public domain long ago. Copyright laws have specific amounts of time that works are protected after which it enters what’s called the “public domain” and it can be reproduced by anyone.
On September 22, 2015 Judge George H. King, of the District Court in California ruled that Warner/Chappell did not own the rights to Happy Birthday, essentially placing the song in the public domain. He found that there was no evidence that Warner/Chappell had actually acquired the rights to the lyrics to Happy Birthday. The agreements between Summy Company and the Hill sisters had transferred piano arrangements but made no reference to the lyrics.
This of course was a US decision regarding ownership which is based on US law. I like to think that a Canadian court would reach a similar result. This decision may also be appealed to a higher court. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing “Happy Birthday to You” more often.