“Happy Birthday to You” is arguably one of the most well-known songs of all time. American citizens are indoctrinated with the lyrics at infancy and hear them ad nauseam through old age. Due in part to the song’s popularity, the Clayton F. Summy Co. filed to copyright the song in 1935. Warner/Chappel Music purchased Summy’s successor-in-interest in 1988 and has been enforcing the copyright claim to “Happy Birthday” ever since. It is estimated that Warner/Chappell earns about $2 million a year from the song. Over the years, the copyright has prevented everything from authors writing the lyrics in their books to directors using the song in films. But in September 2015, that all changed.
Judge George H. King, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, ruled on September 22 that Warner/Chappell’s copyright to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics was invalid in Rupa Marya, et al v. Warner/Chappell Music Inc., Case No. CV 13-4460-GHK. In his 43-page opinion, Chief Judge King addressed everything from the origin of the song to the intricate legal merits of Warner/Chappell’s copyright claim. Importantly, the court noted the distinct copyrightable elements of a musical work. “As a musical work, “Happy Birthday” has at least two copyrightable elements—the music and the lyrics—and each element is protected against infringement independently.” Think of singing the ABCs to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”—identical melodies with entirely different lyrics. The same is true for “Happy Birthday to You,” and its alleged predecessor “Good Morning to You.”
Chief Judge King found both “Good Morning to You” and “Happy Birthday to You” to predate Summy Co.’s 1935 copyright. For decades after the song was published, the original authors did not try to obtain federal copyright protection. “They did not take legal action to prevent the use of the lyrics by others, even as Happy Birthday became very popular and commercially valuable.” It wasn’t until 1934, nearly four decades after the authors first wrote the song, that they formally asserted their rights to the “Happy Birthday”/”Good Morning” melody. They never made a claim to the lyrics.
Based on these facts, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that because “Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”
While it is still uncertain how the court will handle the roughly $2 million per year the defendants collected in licensing fees, this case serves as a reminder of the importance of a valid copyright over intellectual property, as well as an interesting conversation topic the next time you inevitably hear the tune.
—Michael Paretti, Snell & Wilmer, Las Vegas, NV