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.(LA times reports, b) Christine Mai-Duc
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New York Times reported earlier this month, that a filmmaker working on a documentary about “Happy Birthday” was told she’d have to cough up $1, 500 to use it in her movie and is now suing to have the song returned into the public domain. Warner/Chappel, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group that declined to comment to the Times, bought the song for $25 million in 1988, but the lawsuit claims the song’s copyright “expired no later than 1921” — that is, if the song ever left the public domain at all.
More recently, NPR (via Andrew Sullivan) posted a scanned version of a the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” from a 1911 book. Published by the Board of Sunday Schools of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the page clearly shows the same words we all know by heart. The book explains that the song should be sung to the tune of “Good Morning, ” which is no surprise: “Happy Birthday, ” it turns out, evolved from an 1893 song called “Good Morning to You.”