Lawsuit Filed To Prove Happy Birthday Is In The Public Domain; Demands Warner Pay Back Millions Of License Fees
from the about-time dept
Happy Birthday remains the most profitable song ever. Every year, it is the song that earns the highest royalty rates, sent to Warner/Chappell Music (which makes millions per year from “licensing” the song). However, as we’ve been pointing out for years, the song is almost certainly in the public domain. Robert Brauneis did some fantastic work a few years ago laying out why the song’s copyright clearly expired many years ago, even as Warner/Chappell pretends otherwise. You can read all the background, but there are a large number of problems with the copyright, including that the sisters who “wrote” the song, appear to have written neither the music, nor the lyrics. At best, they may have written a similar song called “Good Morning to All” in 1893, with the same basic melody, but there’s evidence to suggest the melody itself predated the sisters. But, more importantly, the owner of the copyright (already questionable) failed to properly renew it in 1962, which would further establish that it’s in the public domain.
The issue, as we’ve noted, is that it’s just not cost effective for anyone to actually stand up and challenge Warner Music, who has strong financial incentive to pretend the copyright is still valid. Well, apparently, someone is pissed off enough to try. The creatively named Good Morning to You Productions, a documentary film company planning a film about the song Happy Birthday, has now filed a lawsuit concerning the copyright of Happy Birthday and is seeking to force Warner/Chappell to return the millions of dollars it has collected over the years. That’s going to make this an interesting case.
More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of Happy Birthday to You is set was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to Happy Birthday to You, and with that copyright the exclusive right to authorize the song’s reproduction, distribution, and public performances pursuant to federal copyright law. Defendant Warner/Chappell either has silenced those wishing to record or perform Happy Birthday to You or has extracted millions of dollars in unlawful licensing fees from those unwilling or unable to challenge its ownership claims.
Irrefutable documentary evidence, some dating back to 1893, shows that the copyright to Happy Birthday to You, if there ever was a valid copyright to any part of the song expired no later than 1921 and that if defendant Warner/Chappell owns any rights to Happy Birthday to You, those rights are limited to the extremely narrow right to reproduce and distribute specific piano arrangements for the song published in 1935. Significantly, no court has ever adjudicated the validity or scope of the defendant’s claimed interest in Happy Birthday to You, nor in the song’s melody or lyrics, which are themselves independent works.
Plaintiff GMTY, on behalf of itself and all others similarly situated, seeks a declaration that Happy Birthday to You is dedicated to public use and is in the public domain as well as monetary damages and restitution of all the unlawful licensing fees that defendant Warner/Chappell improperly collected from GMTY and all other Class members.
The full lawsuit, embedded below, goes through a detailed history of the song and any possible copyright claims around it. It covers the basic history of “Good Morning to You,” but also notes that the “happy birthday” lyrics appeared by 1901 at the latest, citing a January 1901 edition of Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal which describes children singing a song called “happy birthday to you.” They also point to a 1907 book that uses a similar structure for a song called “good-bye to you” which also notes that you can sing “happy birthday to you” using the same music. In 1911, the full “lyrics” to Happy Birthday to You were published, with a notation that it’s “sung to the same tune as ‘Good Morning.'” There’s much more in the history basically showing that the eventual copyright that Warner/Chappell holds is almost entirely unrelated to the song Happy Birthday to You.
The detail in the filing is impressive, and I can’t wait to see how Warner/Chappell replies. As the filing notes, there are a variety of copyright claims around the song, but all are invalid or expired, and the very, very narrow copyright that Warner/Chappell might hold is not on the song itself. In other words, Warner/Chappell is almost certainly guilty of massive copyfraud — perhaps the most massive in history — in claiming a copyright it clearly has no right to.
If and to the extent that defendant Warner/Chappell relies upon the 1893, 1896, 1899, or 1907 copyrights for the melody of Good Morning to All, those copyrights expired or were forfeited as alleged herein.
As alleged above, the 1893 and 1896 copyrights to the original and revised versions of Song Stories for the Kindergarten, which contained the song Good Morning to All were not renewed by Summy and accordingly expired in 1921 and 1924, respectively.
As alleged above, the 1899 copyright to Song Stories for the Sunday School, which contained Good Morning to All, and the 1907 copyright to Good Morning to All were not renewed by Summy Co. before its expiration in 1920 and accordingly expired in 1927 and 1935, respectively.
The 1893, 1896, 1899, and 1907 copyrights to Good Morning to All were forfeited by the republication of Good Morning to All in 1921 without proper notice of its original 1893 copyright.
The copyright to Good Morning to All expired in 1921 because the 1893 copyright to Song Stories for the Kindergarten was not properly renewed.
The piano arrangements for Happy Birthday to You published by Summy Co. 111 in 1935 (Reg. Nos. E51988 and E51990) were not eligible for federal copyright protection because those works did not contain original works of authorship, except to the extent of the piano arrangements themselves.
The 1934 and 1935 copyrights pertained only to the piano arrangements, not to the melody or lyrics of the song Happy Birthday to You.
The registration certificates for The Elementary Worker and His Work in 1912, Harvest in 1924, and Children’s Praise and Worship in 1928, which did not attribute authorship of the lyrics to Happy Birthday to You to anyone, are prima facie evidence that the lyrics were not authored by the Hill Sisters.
And, now we await Warner/Chappell desperately trying to refute an awful lot of evidence that they’ve been engaging in millions of dollars worth of copyfraud year after year.