LOS ANGELES — The music publishing company that has been collecting royalties on the song “Happy Birthday To You” for years does not hold a valid copyright on the lyrics to the tune, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge George H. King determined that the song’s original copyright, obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co. from the song’s writers, covered only the tune’s musical arrangement and not the lyrics.
King’s decision comes in a lawsuit filed two years ago by Good Morning To You Productions Corp., which is working on a documentary film tentatively titled “Happy Birthday.” The company challenged the copyright now held by Warner/Chappell Music Inc., arguing that the song should be “dedicated to public use and in the public domain.”
“Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics, defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics,” King concluded in his 43-page ruling.
The lawsuit also asked for monetary damages and restitution of more than $5 million in licensing fees it said in 2013 that Warner/Chappell had collected from thousands of people and groups who’ve paid to use the song over the years.
Marshall Lamm, a spokesman for one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said that issue would be determined later.
In the meantime, one of the suit’s co-plaintiffs, Ruypa Marya of the music group Ruypa & The April Fishes, praised Tuesday’s decision.
“I hope we can start reimagining copyright law to do what it’s supposed to do — protect the creations of people who make stuff so that we can continue to make more stuff,” said Marya, who added that she paid Warner/Chappell $455 to include “Happy Birthday To You” on a live album during which members of her band and audience sang the song to her the night before her birthday.
Warner/Chappell has said it doesn’t try to collect royalties from just anyone singing the song but those who use it in a commercial enterprise.
“We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options,” Warner/Chappell said in a statement after Tuesday’s ruling.
In his ruling, King went into great detail about the history of “Happy Birthday To You,” which he said was derived from another popular children’s song, “Good Morning to All.”
That song was written by sisters Mildred Hill and Patty Hill sometime before 1893, the judge said. He added that the sisters assigned the rights to it and other songs to Clayton F. Summy, who copyrighted and published them in a book titled “Song Stories for the Kindergarten.”
“The origins of the lyrics to Happy Birthday (the ‘Happy Birthday lyrics’) are less clear,” the judge continued, adding the first known reference to them appeared in a 1901 article in the Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal.
The full lyrics, King said, didn’t appear in print until 1911.
Since then, they have become the most famous lyrics in the English language, according to Guinness World Records. The song is also sung in countless other languages around the world.
Warner/Chappell, which eventually acquired the song’s copyright from Summy, argued that its predecessor had registered a copyright to “Happy Birthday To You” in 1935 that gave it the rights to all of the song.
“Our record does not contain any contractual agreement from 1935 or before between the Hill sisters and Summy Co. concerning the publication and registration of these works,” the judge said.