A long-running lawsuit over the ownership and lucrative copyright to “Happy Birthday,” believed to be the world’s most popular song, has been decided in favor of the people.
A judge in the central district of California ruled this week that the music publishing arm of Warner Music Group no longer holds the rights to the song, because there’s no historical proof that the original composers wrote the lyrics, or immediately obtained copyright for them.
That’s bad news for Warner/Chappel Music, which earned about $2 million a year from licensing the rights to “Happy Birthday” for commercial use. But it means that everyone from professional performers to movie producers to toy manufacturers can now use it for commercial purposes, without fees. (Private use of the song, like singing to friends and relatives in the privacy of one’s home, has never been subject to copyright).
“‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” Randall Newman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Los Angeles Times. “Finally the charade is over.” Warner Music said it was reviewing the decision and considering its options.
There’s no dispute in the annals of American history that the familiar melody was created by three schoolteacher sisters—Mildred, Jessica, and Patty Hill—though the origin of the lyrics is murkier. At least three authors besides the Hill sisters copyrighted the lyrics in the early 1900s, but a music company acquired by Warner/Chappel Music claimed they bought the rights from the teachers.
There are “issues of triable fact” as to whether Patty wrote the lyrics, or if Mildred was a co-author, the judgment reads. (For a deep dive into the ins and outs of US copyright law, you can read the judge’s 43-page decision here.) “Even assuming this is so, neither Patty, nor Mildred, nor Jessica ever did anything with their common law rights in the lyrics,” the judgment says.
The current lawsuit was actually filed by a documentary filmmaker working on a movie about the song’s history, who was charged $1,500 by Warner to use it in the movie. Now that history will come without the hefty price tag.