Warner Music “Happy Birthday” Copyright Lawsuit Heating Up

By Joseph Mandour on August 7, 2015

birthdayLos Angeles – The copyright struggle over the rights to the most recognized song in the English language is back making news again. Good Morning to You Productions Corp. is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against Warner Music Group which seeks declaratory relief that the song “Happy Birthday” is in the public domain. Last week the parties were back in court fighting plaintiffs’ request for a judgment which claims that a copyright for the song may never have been valid in the first place.

Warner Music Group has owned the rights to the song since 1988. Reportedly, Warner receives about $2 million a year from royalties related to the public performance of the song. Though we are all free to sing the song in our homes, any public performance including in movies and TV require a payment to Warner.

Very recently attorneys for the plaintiffs claim to have found evidence that not only is the song in the public domain and free for all to use, but also that it has been that way for a very long time. Plaintiffs have discovered songbooks from the 1920’s which may be breaking open the case. The songbooks were reportedly purchased for $3 each from Amazon.com. One songbook shows a third party using the song with the permission of the copyright holder in 1927 which Warner has previously claimed did not occur. Another songbook from 1922, which may be the smoking gun, publishes the tune and its lyrics without any copyright notice which at the time was required to maintain copyright protection. The 1922 date may also indicate that the work is in the public domain. Copyright attorneys for Warner have argued that the copyright in the song does not expire until 2030.

Patty Smith Hill is believed to be the creator of the song, as she first used the melody as a good morning song to her school children. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that Hill’s intent was for the song to be for public use, and as such she never sought copyright protection for it.

The case is set to be decided within the next few weeks. If Warner ends up losing the case, they may liable for repaying the royalties collected over the years.

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