Dispute over Decades-Old “Happy Birthday to You” Copyright Claim

A current copyright lawsuit against Warner/Chappell, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, who claims copyright to “Happy Birthday to You,” asserts that the song is actually in the public domain. The plaintiff is a filmmaker who produced a documentary about the song and was charged $1,500 for using it. The class action seeks a declaration that the song has been in the public domain, as well as an order that Warner refund fees collected over the past three years (approximately $6 million).

The copyright in question may be rendered void due to defective copyright notice, failure to file proper renewal applications, as well as lack of evidence of authorship. As Plaintiff’s documentary explains, the song was written for kindergarten students in the late 19th century and originally called “Good Morning to All.” The melody was later combined with new words, though it is unclear if anyone owns the copyright to that arrangement. George Washington University law professor Robert Brauneis suggests that the song has probably been in the public domain since between 1921-1963.

Judge George King of the Central District of California has heard Motions for Summary Judgement. If he does not decide in favor of plaintiffs or the defendant, the case will go to trial.