Who Owns the Copyright on the Song “Happy Birthday” ?

Ashley | 14 - 05 - 2020
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Any person’s birthday would be incomplete without the “Happy Birthday song”. But do you know?  “Happy birthday to you” is considered the most recognized song in the English language according to Guinness world records and it has been translated to 18 languages including Arabic, French, German, etc.

The melody of the song “Happy Birthday to You” is based on the song “Good Morning to All” which was written by the Hill sisters, Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. Patty Hill was working as a kindergarten principal in Kentucky and Mildred J.Hill was a pianist and a song composer. The sisters composed a song to the children in the kindergarten called “Good Morning to All”.

Is the Happy Birthday Song Copyrighted? Who Owns the Rights to “Happy Birthday” Song

The song “Happy Birthday to you” first appeared in a songbook in 1912 which had no credits or copyright notices included with it. Later, the Summy Company called Birch Tree group limited registered the copyrights in 1935 crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R Forman. In 1988, Warner/Chappell Music purchased the Summy Company(the company that owned the Happy Birthday song copyrights) for US$25 million and owned the Happy Birthday song Copyright. Warner also claimed that the United States copyrights would not expire until 2013. So the usage of the song in public performances was considered illegal and royalties were to be paid for the usage of the song.

1. When Was It Ruled to Make “Happy Birthday to You” a Public Domain?
  • A. 2016
  • B. 2017
  • C. 2018
  • D. 2019

Warner/Chappel has been making $2m per year from the royalties. Whenever the “happy Birthday song” is used in a movie, television shows, or in a public gathering he sent letters to the unauthorized people who used the song publicly asking to pay royalties. Once Warner/Chappel sent such a letter to the film-maker Jenifer Nelson demanding to pay $1500 for the use of “Happy Birthday to you” in one of her movies. Jenifer Nelson then filed a Happy Birthday lawsuit to declare the song in the public domain. Jenifer also mentioned that at the beginning of her career she thought the song belonged to the use of everyone and never thought it was owned. It is also claimed that Warner/Chappel once collected $5000 dollars for the movie Hoop Dreams.

“Happy Birthday to You” in the Public Domain

In the European Union, the copyright for the song expired on January 1, 2017. After a research American law professor, Stephen Breyer mentioned that the song “Happy Birthday to You” no longer has any copyrights. In 2013, Warner/Chappell had been sued by the Good Morning to You productions for false claims about the copyright to the song. In 2015, it is declared that the copyright registration was applied only to the piano arrangements and not to the lyrics and melody. In 2016, it is declared that Happy Birthday to you” is in the public domain and Warner/Chappel has to pay US$14 million to two groups who have for licensing already. If the fee is paid before 2009 about 15% of the amount they paid must be returned and those who paid after 2009 are eligible to get the full fee back.

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