Filmmaker Files Lawsuit to Cancel Copyright for “Happy Birthday” Song

By Joseph Mandour on June 21, 2013

happy-birthday Los Angeles – The copyright for the song, “Happy Birthday to You” came under fire in federal court last week when filmmaker Jennifer Nelson filed a lawsuit to cancel the copyright.  The lawsuit, brought in New York federal court in Manhattan, seeks to place the infamous birthday song in the public domain and force the copyright holder to return the licensing fees paid for use in the past four years.

Nelson became aware of this copyright when she began work on a documentary about the origins of the Happy Birthday song.  For including the song in her documentary, she was charged a licensing fee of $1,500 by the copyright holder, Warner/Chappell Music.

Upon researching the origins of the song, she discovered the song is much older than Warner/Chappell claims.  A pair of sisters named Mildred and Patty Hill composed a song titled “Good Morning to You” in 1893 as a song written for kindergarteners.  In the years following that release, the song slowly morphed into the song we now know as “Happy Birthday to You.”

While the song was commonly sung throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, the specific piano arrangement used today was not copyrighted until 1935.  Warner/Chappell Music, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, obtained the copyright in 1988 through the purchase of Birchtree Ltd., a small musical holdings company that previously held rights to the song.

Although the song “Happy Birthday to You” has been in use for more than 100 years, Warner/Chappell claims the current copyright is strictly for the piano arrangement composed in 1935.  It claims this arrangement distinguishes the song from its previous adaptations.  Copyright law at that time stipulated that copyrights were valid for 95 years, so Warner/Chappell claims its copyright is valid until 2030.  Plaintiffs are arguing that Warner/Chappell’s version of the song is indistinguishable from the earlier version and thus any valid copyright has already expired.

Plaintiffs are seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which would operate on behalf of all parties who have paid licensing fees to Warner/Chappell Music, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, for rights to use the song.  She estimates that the music company collects up to $2 million per year in licensing fees for this song.

Warner/Chappell has defended the copyright fiercely, charging large licensing fees for use in film.  In the lawsuit, plaintiffs are requesting the return of the licensing rights Warner/Chappell has collected, which could potentially be as much as $50 million.

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