Judge Blows Out Candles on ‘Happy Birthday’ Copyright

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Happy birthday to all.

A decades-old claim to the copyright of the song “Happy Birthday to You” has been reversed, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Federal Judge George H. King ruled in Los Angeles on Tuesday that Warner/Chappell Music never had the right to charge third parties for use of the song.

The music publishing company, which is a division of Warner Music Group, “had been enforcing a copyright since 1988, when it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original disputed copyright,” the Los Angeles Times reports:

At a March hearing in the case, records show, a Warner/Chappell representative seated in the audience told the judge that the company collects as much as “six figures” for certain single uses of the song. The song brings in about $2 million a year in royalties for Warner, according to some estimates.

The song’s convoluted history dates to 1893, when sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill wrote a song titled “Good Morning to All” for Patty’s kindergarten students. Clayton F. Summy Co. was their publisher. However, King ruled that it was unclear whether the sisters wrote the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You,” sung to the same tune.

Randall Newman, an attorney for the lawsuit plaintiffs — who included a group of filmmakers making a documentary about the song — told the Los Angeles Times:

“‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free … Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.”

The plaintiff’s attorneys have also said they plan to qualify the case as a class-action so they can try to recover millions of dollars in licensing fees collected by Warner/Chappell.

A spokesman for Warner/Chappell tells the newspaper:

“We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”

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