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Judge Rules that ‘Happy Birthday’ Song Should Not Be Copyrighted
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After years of debate, a judge has ruled that the “Happy Birthday Song” is part of the public domain, meaning that anyone may use it without paying a copyright fee.

Summary: After years of debate, a judge has ruled that the “Happy Birthday Song” is part of the public domain, meaning that anyone may use it without paying a copyright fee.

According to BBC, the “Happy Birthday” song is now available to anyone who wishes to use it.


Warner/Chappell acquired the copyright to the popular tune in 1988. It was originally filed 53 years earlier, in 1935. However, Judge George King ruled that the original copyright had only been granted for specific arrangements of the music, and not for the actual song itself.

Two sisters from Kentucky created the song in 1893. Mildred and Patty Hill named the song “Good Morning to All,” but it later evolved into the “Birthday Song.” According to The Guardian, the lyrics first appeared in a 1911 publication called “The Elementary Worker and His Work.”

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams recently lost a Marvin Gaye copyright suit.

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Warner/Chappell has been paid for use of the song since 1988. Warner/Chappell purchased Birch Tree Group, which was the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., the company that owned the original copyright.

Since that time, Warner/Chappell has made an estimated $2 million per year by charging every time the song was used in public performances, television shows, movies, or advertisements.

In 2013, Rupa Marya and Robert Siegel, who are creating a film about the song, initiated the lawsuit against the publishers.

Warner told Marya and Siegel that they would have to pay $1,500 to use the song in the movie. Marya and Siegel responded that the song was in the public domain, and that they should not have to pay any copyright fees to use it.

Judge King ruled that the original copyright holder, Summy, never legally possessed copyright to the words of the song. According to the judge, “The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics.”

Last year, a judge ruled that Grooveshark’s actions infringe on copyrights.

Mark Rifkin, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, said that he was “thrilled” with the results.

Judge Rules that ‘Happy Birthday’ Song Should Not Be Copyrighted


Rifkin said, “We did exhaustive historical research and none of it showed that the publisher owned anything other than copyrights to four very specific piano arrangements.” Rifkin intends to ask the court to order Warner to return all the money that’s been collected from everyone who has had to pay a licensing fee or royalty to use the song over the years. “If they’ve collected $2m a year over that period, that’s a large sum of money,” Rifkin added.

Should Warner have to pay back all the royalties it has collected over the years?

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According to the Los Angeles Times, the plaintiffs’ attorneys treated the years-long debate as a “David v. Goliath” fight that positioned independent filmmakers against a large corporation.

After the judge made his ruling, Warner/Chappell commented, “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”

Last June, Led Zeppelin was sued for copyright infringement of “Stairway to Heaven.”

The song is still under copyright law in the United Kingdom and many other countries. Intellectual property attorney Mark Owen of Taylor Wessing says that others should be careful before they use the song. He explained, “As elements of the song are still potentially within the maximum copyright term it may be the case that someone still owns some rights to it. There are also complex questions as to what the impact of this ruling may be on uses outside the US, so film-makers here should not now rush into using the song without considering the impact of this judgment carefully.”

Source: BBC

Photo credit:, (Rifkin),




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