That “Happy Birthday” – one of the most sung songs in the world – was still under copyright protection at all comes as a surprise to many people.
Nobody disputes that Mildred Hill, later a renowned musicologist, wrote the melody. Warner acquired Birch Tree in 1988.
King ruled that a copyright filed by the Summy Co., in 1935 granted only the rights to specific piano arrangements of the music, not the actual song, according to LA Times. The corporation was convinced it owned the legal rights to the lyrics. They later purported to write the iconic “Happy Birthday to You” song lyrics.
A judge in California ruled on Tuesday that the “Happy Birthday” song is not owned by a record label and is in the public domain.
In 1893, the sisters assigned their Good Morning To All rights to Clayton Summy, who published the melody in a songbook, Song Stories for the Kindergarten.
A spokesperson from Warner/Chappell told the Times the company was “considering our options”, but if it stands, awkwardly evasive renditions of “Happy Birthday to You” could be a relic of a bygone era.
The basic “Happy Birthday” tune, derived from another popular children’s song, “Good Morning to All“, has long been in the public domain, and King’s decision, though it could be appealed, makes the entirety fair game for use.
Nelson had been seeking to create a documentary about the song, but found out that if she wanted to use the song in the movie, she’d have to pay at least $1,500 to Warner/Chappell to do so. Summy’s company was bought by Warner Music Group in 1998, according to the lawsuit. Damages could pile into the millions, given the annual revenue estimates revealed in court proceedings (the plaintiffs have indicated a possible class action ahead). But when the song has been used for commercial purposes, such as in films, Warner has enforced its rights, and takes in an estimated million in royalties for such uses each year.