In 1988, Warner/ Chappell acquired the “Happy Birthday” song everyone sings at birthday parties. The company acquired the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” from Summy Corp, which registered the copyright for the song in 1935. The rights to the song originally belonged to Patty and Mildred Hill, two sisters who wrote the lyrics and melody.
Warner/Chappell told Filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who wanted to create a documentary about the song, she would have to pay approximately $1,500. The amount was a licensing fee for using the music. Nelson sued. The heart of the lawsuit focused on Warner/Chappell’s copyright to “Happy Birthday.”
A Copyright Prevent Someone from Using Work without Permission
A copyright is a legal right to prevent anyone from using an individual’s original work without permission. Federal copyright law entitles the author of the work exclusive rights to:
- Reproduce or perform the copyrighted work
- Distribute any copies made from the original copyrighted work up for public sale
Original work can range from software codes, to music, fiction stories to art.
The Defendant Claimed It Owned the Rights to the “Happy Birthday” Lyrics
According to Warner/Chappell, it owned the copyright to the lyrics. It didn’t dispute the fact that the melody of the song was already part of the public domain. Public domain music are songs listed in the public domain registry because no one has legal copyright to them.
According to federal copyright laws, legal right to a copyrighted work is for 28 years. After the 28 years has ended, the author can renew for an additional 47 years. This gives an individual or corporation up to 75 years of copyright protection. After that time, the original work enters into public domain. All music made prior to 1923 are considered in the public domain. Therefore, Warner/ Chappell contended Nelson could use the melody, but had to pay for the lyrics.
Nelson contended Warner/Chappell only acquired the rights to the melody and specific piano arrangements from Summy in 1935. According to Nelson’s lawyer, it’s obvious that pianos don’t sing. Therefore, it wasn’t logical to believe the Warner/Chappell rights to the song’s piano arrangements included rights to words and lyrics too.
A federal judge in Los Angeles agreed. Warner/Chappell didn’t have a valid copyright to the “Happy Birthday” song. It’s estimated that the company collected about $2 million every year in licensing fees.
People Who Paid the Defendant May Get Their Money Back
Honestly, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Nelson’s lawyer was right. Warner/Hill didn’t have a legal right to the “Happy Birthday” song just because it acquired the piano arrangements. The song belongs in the public domain like other songs create decades ago. It wasn’t fair to require people and companies to pay licensing fees on something that belong to the public.
The copyright had long since expired. You see, by 1911, the public started singing “Happy Birthday.” It’s not clear who actually wrote the original lyrics to the song. The copyright Warner/Chappell had was to a cover of the “Happy Birthday” song with the piano arrangements used.
The sisters never wrote the song. In fact, the melody used by the sisters was from another song composed by the sisters. It was called “Good Morning to All.”
So have your fun singing the “Happy Birthday” song. It’s a rite of passage to hear during that special moment of turning another year older. Who knows, maybe you were like Nelson and told to pay licensing fees to use the song. If you did, you may be singing another song when getting a check from Warner/Chappell.
Authored by Taelonnda Sewell, LegalMatch Legal Writer