by Mark Linnhoefer – A federal Los Angeles judge ruled on Tuesday that none of the copyright claims for the world-famous song ‘Happy Birthday to You’ are valid. This means that none of the companies that have been collecting royalties for the past eighty years had the right to do so.
The main company affected by this ruling is Warner, who has been claiming copyrights and thus charging people for the use of the song since 1988, when the company bought the Birch Tree Group, who was the legal successor of Clayton F. Summy Co., the company with which the copyright was first registered in 1935 by Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill.
The sisters composed the melody in 1893 as a song called ‘Good Morning To All’ for Patty’s school class. When they included the song in a children’s song book, they assigned the copyright to their publisher, Clayton F. Summy Co. Judge George H. King however has now ruled that said copyright only extends to specific piano arrangements of the melody and not the song itself.
The judge said that ownership of the song with lyrics cannot be properly attributed, thereby rendering any previous copyright claims invalid.
The whole debate was set in motion by two independent filmmakers who wanted to use the song in a short film but would have had to pay about $2000 in royalties to do so. They then set in motion a lawsuit they now want to reclassify as a class-action so as to force Warner to give up the profits made from royalties for the song over the past 80 years.
Warner’s lawyers say that they are evaluating their options but have not yet said anything to indicate if they will appeal the verdict. A third of those profits went to a charity designed by the Hill sisters – the Association for Childhood Education International – and it remains to be seen whether or not the not-for-profit organizations will have to return that money based on the class-action suit.
The main result for now is that the song “Happy Birthday” is now public property and can be used by anyone in any form they please, which should help diminish paranoia at birthday parties