Why the 'Happy Birthday' song can now be sung for free

A judge ruled Tuesday that royalties no longer are owed when “Happy Birthday To You" is sung in a commercial setting.

REUTERS/University of Louisville/Handout
Sheet music for the song Good Morning To All (aka the Happy Birthday song) is seen in an undated photo provided by the University of Louisville, Kentucky. A college librarian in Kentucky has found the 19th-century manuscript of a musical number that gave rise to one of the most widely performed songs in the world, "Happy Birthday to You," University of Louisville officials said.

The song “Happy Birthday To You,” has proven to be worth millions.

US District Judge George H. King found Tuesday that the song is now entirely in the public domain, because the original copyright bought in 1988 by Warner/Chappell Music Inc. for $15 million from Clayton F. Summy Co. who originally obtained the copyright from the song’s writers, only covered specific piano arrangements of the song and not the lyrics themselves.

“‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” Randall Newman, one of the plantiffs’ attorneys, told the Los Angeles Times.

Warner/Chappell has said it doesn't try to collect royalties from just anyone singing the song but those who use it in a commercial enterprise, reports the Associated Press.

By making one of the most widely sung songs in the world fair game, the music publishing company Warner/Chappell will lose $2 million a year in reported revenue. “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options,” Warner/Chappell said in a statement after Tuesday’s ruling.

Judge King’s decision comes from a lawsuit filed two years ago by Good Morning to You Corp., which challenged the copyright arguing that the song should be “dedicated to public use and in the public domain.”

Before giving his decision, King went into great detail about the history of the song. Originally written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill sometime before 1893, the sisters then assigned the rights of the song to Summy, who later published them in a book titled ‘Song Stories for the Kindergarten.’

However, the full lyrics themselves never appeared in print until 1911, says King.

“Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics, defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics,” King ultimately explained in his 43-page ruling.

Not only is the song worth millions, but according to Guinness World Records, the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics have also become the most famous lyrics in the world.

In another recent music copyrights case, Robin Thicke was faced a lawsuit claiming that his hit ‘Blurred Lines’ had copied elements of songs by Marvin Gaye and George Clinton. Attorneys for Thicke, and the song’s collaborators Pharrell Williams and T.I., asked a federal judge to determine the song’s originality once and for all.

“Plantiffs created a hit and did it without copying anyone else’s composition,” the counter lawsuit reads.  "The basis of the Gaye defendants' claims is that 'Blurred Lines' and 'Got to Give It Up' 'feel' or 'sound' the same," the lawsuit states. "Being reminiscent of a 'sound' is not copyright infringement. The intent in producing 'Blurred Lines' was to evoke an era."

“I know the difference between inspiration and theft,” Thicke explained in an interview with the New York Times. “I’m constantly inspired, but I would never steal.”

Thicke and Williams eventually lost the case, and a Los Angeles jury awarded Gaye’s estate $4 million in damages plus $3.4 million in profits made from the copyright infringement.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story. 

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