Can I sing Happy Birthday without being sued?

February 10, 2016 Published by

Two years later and the world can almost sing Happy Birthday without paying a large sum to Warner Chappell Inc.

It was recently held that Warner does not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics. Warner grudgingly agreed to pay $14m to settle, but asserted that it “respectfully disagreed with the court’s decision”. The settlement is not final until it is approved by U.S. District Judge George H. King.

Origin of the Tune
Warner purchased the rights for $22m in 1988, and has reportedly since been making a return of around $2 million annually on the copyright in the lyrics.

The tune was written in 1893, but with different lyrics by Patty Smith Hill and her sister, Mildred J Hill. It was originally called Good Morning to All. The rights were assigned to Clayton F Summy and were copyrighted and published by him in a book titles Song Stories for the Kindergarten.
The rights then passed to Birch Tee Group and then in 1988 to Warner when it bought Birch Tree.

Origin of the Lyrics
The full lyrics didn’t appear in print until 1911. In 1930 Patty Hill claimed that she had written the lyrics at the same time that Good Morning to All was written.

It was held that Summy Co only acquired the piano arrangement of the melody not the right to the lyrics. Summy Co’s successor would therefore not have a valid copyright.

The Outcome
The legal team representing the plaintiffs are seeking fees of $4.62 m. The rest of the $14m according to court papers the tentative settlement allows those as far back as 1949 who paid licensing fees to use the song to recoup some or all of their money.
There is a spanner in the works. The copyright is owned by two charities that were beneficiaries of the Hill estate. The charities had been accepting royalties from Warner for more than 20 years.

Link to our previous blog post on this topic:

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