Eagle Forum Legislative Alerts

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Freedom for “Happy Birthday” after 80 years!

The most popular song in the world is the familiar “Happy Birthday,” which hundreds of millions sing by heart every year. Some may be astonished to learn that restaurants, theater groups, movie producers, and other businesses have been forced for years to pay royalties for their every use of this song, based on a 1935 copyright. Watch closely during birthday celebrations on television and notice how rarely “Happy Birthday” is sung. That’s because the current owner of its 1935 copyright, music publisher Warner/Chappell, has demanded royalties for such uses to the tune of about $2 million annually.

Now a recent decision by a federal district court in California has ended the copyright claim to “Happy Birthday” and freed it from decades of restrictions of its use. The court painstakingly traced the history of the song and concluded that it is not under a valid copyright after all. The song’s origin dates back to 1893, when two sisters named Mildred and Patty Hill composed “Good Morning” for schoolchildren, with lyrics very similar to Happy Birthday. Patty Hill, in a deposition she did about 80 years ago, stated that when a child had a birthday in the school, she would change the lyrics from “Good morning to you” to “Happy Birthday to you.”

Mildred and Patty Hill assigned their rights in “Good Morning” to Clayton F. Summy, who published it in a songbook entitled Song Stories for the Kindergarten, and registered a copyright for it in 1893. About 40 years later, in 1935, his company registered a copyright of the lyrics to “Happy Birthday,” and royalty demands are based on that copyright.

But the federal court found evidence of multiple prior publications of the “Happy Birthday” song, including uses in old movies, which predate the 1935 registration on which the royalty claims are based. During these earlier publications of “Happy Birthday,” the Hills “did not take legal action to prevent the use of the lyrics by others, even as Happy Birthday became very popular and commercially valuable.” Thus the 1935 copyright registration in the lyrics was not valid, and many millions in royalties collected should be refunded. So, “Happy Birthday” to the start of freedom for this song!

Listen to the radio commentary here:

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