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Happy Birthday Song Copyright Questioned in Lawsuit

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Happy Birthday via tsuihin - TimoStudios on Flickr (CC license)

Image via tsuihin - TimoStudios on Flickr (CC license)

We all know and love the “Happy Birthday to You” refrain, but did you know it’s still under copyright?

Well, according to a Reuters article, a recent lawsuit filed in federal court would like to change that.

Good Morning to You Productions Corp, the named plaintiff in a proposed class action lawsuit in federal court, claims that Warner/Chappel Music Inc. has “wrongfully and unlawfully” claimed to own the “Happy Birthday” song copyright and in the process collected “millions of dollars of unlawful licensing fees” that should be returned. The lawsuit estimates that the company gets about $2 million a year in such fees.

A copyright holder can require those who would like to use protected material to pay a licensing fee in order to do so. Good Morning to You is producing a documentary about the popular ditty and has paid a $1,500 licensing fee for the song’s use in order to avoid a potential $150,000 penalty.

The copyright of the melody of the song can be traced back to 1893, when it was published as “Good Morning to All” as written by Patty and Mildred Hill. The public began singing the lyrics we know as “Happy Birthday to You” thereafter — and that “public” progression is what the plaintiff in the current lawsuit says should firmly place the song in the public domain.

In addition to the return of millions of dollars already collected in licensing fees, the plaintiff is also asking that the court declare the song to be in the public domain, which would mean that anyone would be free to use the song without gaining permission or paying licensing fees.

Warner/Chappell has not yet commented publicly on the lawsuit.

Do you agree that the Happy Birthday song should be in the public domain?

UPDATE: In late July, Good Morning to You Productions dropped its class action suit in federal court for the Southern District of New York. However, the lawsuit continues in federal court in California under the name Rupa Marya, et al. v. Warner/Chappell Music. In response to Warner/Chappell’s effort to dismiss much of the lawsuit, in late September, a U.S. district judge indicated the case would continue. Stay tuned!


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July 1st, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Intellectual Property

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