Sunday, September 27, 2015


For a simple composition, the ‘Happy Birthday’ song has had a complex history riddled with copyright lawsuits and profit-earning schemes. A Federal Judge in a surprise decision on 22nd September, 2015 ruled that Warner/Chappell Music never had the right to charge for the use of the song. Warner had been enforcing a copyright since 1988, when it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original disputed copyright.

The lawsuit against Warner claimed that the company had earned millions of dollars in unlawful licensing schemes. The Judge ruled that the copyright filed by Clayton F. Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the right to various piano arrangements and not the actual lyrics of the song.

Until now, Warner has asked for royalties from anyone who wanted to sing or play the song, with the lyrics, as part of a profit-making enterprise. Royalties were most often collected from stage productions, television shows, movies or greeting cards. But even those who wanted to sing the song publicly as part of a business technically had to pay to use the song. The lawsuit stated that the music company earned approximately two million a year in licensing fees.

Both the parties agreed that the melody of the song, first written as ‘Good Morning to you All’ by two sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, had entered the public domain years ago but Warner still claimed that it owned the rights to the song as per the 1935 copyright claim.

The Judge’s stunning ruling implies that the song is now a public work and everyone is free to use it without the fear of having to pay for it.

Nayanika Singhal