Who wrote the song “Happy Birthday”? Who has the copyright?
It is reported that the most frequently played song in the world is “Happy Birthday”. Can anyone sing it, play it, record it, rebroadcast it? Can anyone use it for commercial purposes without having to pay royalties?
The answers to the above questions were recently addressed in a Court decision that determined that “Happy Birthday” was not protected by copyright laws.
It took a 43-page decision by Judge George H. King of the United States District Court in Los Angeles to trace the origin of the tune and its history. The song’s melody is credited to “Good Morning to All,” a song written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, first published by the Clayton F. Summy Company in 1893. Summy registered a version of the song, with new “Happy Birthday” lyrics, in 1935. Warner Music Group purchased Summy in 1988 and began charging fees for commercial uses of the song. One estimate calculated that Warner received about $2 million yearly from these licensing fees. Because of these fees, several restaurant chains forbade their wait staff from singing “Happy Birthday” and instead created their own birthday songs to sing to customers.
However, the Court ruled that Summy never had the property rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics in the first place. With the melody already in the public domain, that left Warner with neither music nor lyrics.
The result of the decision, if it stands, is that “Happy Birthday” passes into the public domain. Waiters will begin to sing the song again. But what about all the fees paid over the years? The successful plaintiffs are going to seek to get reimbursed.
Gary Schuster is Senior Counsel with the firm and practices Arts & Entertainment and Business Law. He can be reached by phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.