Originally titled “Good Morning to All”, the “happy birthday” song was written by two sisters – Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill – in 1893. A lawsuit filed by “Good Morning to You Productions Corp” argues that the public use of the popular song should be free since Warner’s and Chappell’s copyright license has expired.
“Good Morning to You Productions Corp” is a film company that started working on a documentary about the “happy birthday” song. To stay within the legal boundaries and avoid being accused of copyright infringement, the documentary’s producers have paid a $1.500 “synchronization license fee”. But they did not stop there…
The company’s decided to make the song free for everyone; as such, it filed lawsuit on Thursday, hoping that Warner and Chappell Music would return the millions of dollars they’ve collected over the years.
“More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is set was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to ‘Happy Birthday to You,’” the lawsuit states.
“Why is there a copyright on the song?” one may ask; well, because its lyrics turned up in a 1924 songbook and a 1935 piano arrangement.
The film company argued that it can provide with “irrefutable documentary evidence, some dating back to 1893, [which] shows that the copyright to ‘Happy Birthday,’ if there ever was a valid copyright to any part of the song, expired no later than 1921 and that if defendant Warner/Chappell owns any rights to ‘Happy Birthday,’ those rights are limited to the extremely narrow right to reproduce and distribute specific piano arrangements for the song published in 1935.”
Furthermore, the lawsuit states that Warner and Chappell have collected a minimum of $2 million a year just from license fees. It continues to point out that Clayton Summy had bought the song’s rights from the two sisters, offering in exchange 10% of the retail sales. In 1998, Warner and Chappell purchased the copyright license from Birch Tree Ltd. – a company that traces back to Clayton.
“Even though the lyrics to ‘Happy Birthday to You’ and the song ‘Happy Birthday to You’ had not been fixed in a tangible medium of expression, the public began singing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ no later than the early 1900s,” the complaint writes.
“Robert Brauneis, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said he searched nationwide for evidence of a copyright for a combination of the melody for “Good Morning to All” with the lyrics for “Happy Birthday to You” for an article published in 2009 but did not find any,” a Reuters report informs.
If the court of law favors “Good Morning to You Productions Corp”, then we’ll have a very exciting turn of events.
Also, those who are interested in the plaintiff’s arguments can find them here.