Good news: you can now sing Happy Birthday without fear of someone demanding you get your checkbook out.
A US judge has overturned a copyright claim to Happy Birthday, declaring the seminal number is not owned by a group that includes Warner/Chappell Music, which has been collecting royalties for the song's performances.
The ruling on Tuesday [PDF] clears the way for the use of Happy Birthday without a hefty royalties claim. Of course, someone else could come forward to claim they truly own the rights to the ditty, but that's extremely unlikely.
Judge George King of the California Central District Court sided with a group of plaintiffs who argued that Warner and co did not own the copyright on the lyrics of Happy Birthday.
The case focused on the words to the Happy Birthday song. In the 1890s, three women known as the Hill sisters wrote the music and lyrics for a song called Good Morning (To All), and sold the rights to the melody to the publisher of a children's songbook. The copyright of Good Morning expired in 1949.
Somewhere along the line, the melody to Good Morning was paired with new lyrics to become the Happy Birthday (To You) song that we all know today and sing at parties. In 1935, the people who owned Good Morning claimed copyright over the Happy Birthday song because the two sounded so similar.
Eventually, the rights to Happy Birthday made their way into the hands of Warner/Chappell, which demanded fees for its performances. The copyright ownership hinged on whether or not the Hill sisters had come up with the birthday song's words and paired it with their original melody – if not, then the lyrics shouldn't be the property of Warner/Chappell and co.
According to Judge King, the origins of the birthday celebration lyrics are not clear, and therefore can't definitively be credited to the Hills and Summy Company, the business that purchased Good Morning.
"Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record," the judge 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."
The ruling doesn't put Happy Birthday in the public domain, but it does negate the claim of ownership from Warner/Chappell. While people singing the song in their homes had nothing to worry about, performances of the song in productions and broadcasts or by restaurant staff were subject to copyright claims (hence the propensity for "original" birthday songs at many chain eateries).
According to The Los Angeles Times, filmmakers have been charged sums ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 to show the song being performed. ®