“Happy Birthday” Song Lyrics Not Copyrightable

On September 22, 2015, a judge of the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California invalidated a copyright claim to the lyrics of the song of “Happy Birthday To You.”  The court held that Warner/Chapelle Music, Inc., successors of Summy Co., was not able to show that the original writers, Patty Hill and Mildred Hill, ever gave Summy Co. rights to the lyrics.

Chief Judge George King wrote: “The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics.” Judge King’s 43-page decision examined the complex history of the song that goes back more than a century.

The melody of the song was actually first composed for “Good Morning to All” in 1893 by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill.  That same year, the sisters assigned their rights to the song to Mr. Clayton F. Summy who filed for federal copyright and published it in a songbook. Copyright protection for the songbook, including lyrics and melody to “Good Morning to All,” expired in 1949, thus the melody for Happy Birthday has been in the public domain.

The plaintiff Jennifer Nelson, an independent filmmaker, made a documentary about the song in 2013 and brought the case after Warner filed a claim against a musician who recorded the song during an event in San Francisco.

It is surprising to many that Warner has received royalties from stage productions, television shows, movies or greeting cards using the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You,” bringing in approximately $2 million a year, according to some estimates.

Mark C. Rifkin, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the plaintiffs will pursue Warner for royalties paid since “at least” 1988, and could also ask the company to repay royalties that have been collected all the way back to 1935.

For now, because there was no evidence existed that the Summy Co. ever legally obtained the rights to the “Happy Birthday To You” lyrics from whomever wrote it, the song is now considered a public work and is free for everyone to use.