None of the companies that have collected royalties on the “Happy Birthday” song for the past 80 years held a valid copyright claim to one of the most popular songs in history, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled on Tuesday.
In a stunning reversal of decades of copyright claims, the judge ruled that Warner/Chappell never had the right to charge for the use of the “Happy Birthday To You” song. Warner had been enforcing a copyright since 1988, when it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original disputed copyright. Judge George H. King ruled that a copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific piano arrangements of the music, not the actual song.
“‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” said Randall Newman, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit, which included a group of filmmakers who are producing a documentary about the song. “Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.” A spokesman for Warner/Chappell, the publishing arm of Warner Music, said, “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”
Copyright is a tricky business. As a creative artist myself, with all my books under copyright, I rely on copyright law to protect my intellectual property. But how long should copyright last? Under pressure from large corporations like Disney and Warner, valuable copyrights have been extended and extended, long past the life of the artist and even his direct heirs.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys had characterized the years-long legal fight as a David vs. Goliath battle that pitted independent filmmakers against a large corporation collecting profits on a song whose authors had long since died. Until now, Warner has asked for royalties from anyone who wanted to sing or play “Happy Birthday to You” — with the lyrics — as part of a profit-making enterprise. Royalties were most often collected from stage productions, television shows, movies or greeting cards. But even those who wanted to sing the song publicly as part of a business, say a restaurant owner giving out free birthday cake to patrons, technically had to pay to use the song, prompting creative renditions at chain eateries trying to avoid paying royalties.
Song and lyrics clearances can cost — I once had to pay Paul McCartney a couple of hundred bucks to quote a single line from “Let It Be” in my biography of the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. And costs can run much, much higher:
The fact that the birthday tune can’t be played or sung without permission from Warner has been little more than a surprising piece of trivia for most, but for Warner Music Group, it has meant big business. Two of the filmmaker plaintiffs paid $1,500 and $3,000 for the rights to use the song, their attorneys said. Filmmaker Steve James paid Warner $5,000 to use the song in his 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.”
Free at last!