US court dismisses copyright claim for ‘Happy Birthday’ song

Warner Chappell had reportedly received $2 million every year in royalties from the tune

A judge in the US has ruled that the traditional birthday song ‘Happy Birthday To You’ should be in the public domain following a recent copyright dispute.

District judge George H King declared at a Los Angeles court on Tuesday (September 22) that Warner Chappell Music, the publishing division of Warner Music Group, should no longer receive royalties from the song’s usage.

It is widely thought that the song will officially enter the public domain shortly, making it free to use.

‘Happy Birthday To You’ was written by American sisters Parry and Mildred Hill in 1883, with the Clayton F Summy Co later filing for copyright of the song in 1935.

Warner Chappell obtained the copyright for the tune for $25 million in 1988. They reportedly receive $2 million every year in royalties for its use in TV shows and films.

However, King has not stated that the original Sumny copyright filing referred to a specific arrangement of the song, but not the actual composition itself.

“Because Summy Co never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, [the] defendants, as Summy Co’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics,” King said.

Filmmaker Jennifer Nelson was among various plaintiffs appealing Warner Chappell’s ownership of the song. She was told to pay $1,500 to use the song in a documentary she’s making about its history.

Nelson’s attorney said of the decision, “Happy Birthday is finally free after 80 years. Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.”