Restaurants, business owners, authors and producers no longer have to pay a copyright royalty to perform the “Happy Birthday” song. A federal district court judge has ruled that Warner/Chapelle Music Inc., which has been claiming ownership of the copyright in the song – and charging royalties for its use — does not own the copyright, after all.
Patty and Mildred Smith wrote a song called “Good Morning To All” in the nineteenth century. Originally intended for use in a kindergarten classroom, the lyrics were: “Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning, dear children / Good morning to all.” They published the song in a book, and assigned the copyright to their publisher, the Clayton F. Summy Company.
The Summy Company registered a copyright claim to the song, “Happy Birthday To You” in 1935. Warner/Chapelle succeeded to that claim.
Warner/Chapelle argued the 1935 registration secured ownership of copyright in the lyrics as well as the music. The judge ruled, however, that even if the Summy Company acquired rights to the melody, there was no evidence the Summy Company ever acquired the copyright to the lyrics.
Melody vs. lyrics
The melody for the famous birthday song has been in the public domain for over half a century, the copyright registration having expired in 1949. This meant that anyone could use the song in their business, or in a greeting card, musical composition, sound recording or audiovisual work, provided they used different lyrics. Because Warner/Chapelle claimed ownership of the copyright to the lyrics, the company maintained that anyone wishing to publicly perform, publish or record the words to the song (“Happy birthday to you,” etc.) needed to pay a royalty. Warner has collected millions of dollars of royalties for the lyrics to this song.
Very likely in the public domain
Many reporters are saying the song is now “in the public domain.” This is not accurate. The ruling means that Warner/Chapelle has failed to establish a right to claim royalties for the song, or the lyrics to it. The fact that the Hill sisters did not convey the copyright to the lyrics to the Summy Company simply means that the long-time lyrics rights-claimant Warner/Chapelle cannot assert ownership. It does not mean that nobody else can. In theory, if it can be proven that someone else wrote it, and that the first authorized publication occurred after 1923, and that all copyright requirements that existed at all relevant times have been met, then that person, or his successor(s) in interest, may own the copyright to the lyrics. That will not be an easy thing to do, given the existence of a songbook containing the lyrics to “Happy birthday to you,” purporting to have been published “with permission,” with a publication date of 1922 appearing on it.