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Copyright War over “Happy Birthday to You”
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On Thursday, a proposed class action was filed to declare the song “Happy Birthday to You” to be in public domain. The lawsuit alleged that “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 was filed by Good Morning To You Productions Corp, a New York company, which in the process of making a documentary about the song popular across the world, found to their chagrin that they were required to pay a hefty license fee to Warner/Chappell.

Using the song “Happy Birthday to You” without the permission of Warner/Chappell for reproductions and public performances can cost a penalty of up to $150,000 – something few outside the media world may be aware of.


The lawsuit alleged that Warner/Chappell collects about $2 million annually on licensing fees for the song and has collected “millions of dollars of unlawful licensing fees,” which the lawsuit wants to be returned to those who were forced to pay.

More interesting is the fact that the melody used to sing “Happy Birthday to You” was not meant for the song but was originally used in a song published in 1893 as “Good Morning to All.” The song was written by Patty and Mildred Hill.

The public began to use the melody for singing the simple lyrics of “Happy Birthday to You” of their own accord, and according to scholars, there’s yet no written record of or any evidence of any copyright of the combination using the song “Happy Birthday to You,” and the melody for “Good Morning to All.”

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However, those who bought the copyright to the melody of “Good Morning to All,” have continued to collect license fees from those who used the melody to sing “Happy Birthday to You.”

The rights to the melody was originally purchased by one Clayton Summy, who bought it from the Hill sisters. Subsequently the Warner Music Group acquired the rights to the melody by acquiring Birch Tree Ltd in 1998. Birch Tree claimed it was founded by Clayton Summy.

Later Edgar Bronfman Jr. bought the Warner Music Group and sold it to Access Industries Inc.


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