U.S. District Court Judge George H. King, has ruled that the lyrics to one of the most popular songs in the English language are not protected by a valid copyright. According to the opinion “Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”
Judge King granted summary judgment in favor of a filmmaker who challenged Defendants’ (Warner/Chappell) copyright to the world famous Birthday song. Absent new developments on appeal, the ruling means that Warner/Chappell will lose out on a reported $2 million a year in revenue from the song, and filmmakers (such as the Plaintiff in this case) will no longer have to pay to feature “Happy Birthday to You” in film and television.
Judge King rejected Warner/Chappell’s argument that a copyright entitles them to a presumption of validity, noting that it was not clear whether the registration for “Happy Birthday to You” included the lyrics, or “just the rights to the melody, and the rights to the piano arrangements based on the melody.” Furthermore, the ruling states that rights in the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You” never properly transferred to the Defendants.
Attorneys for the Defendants are considering their options for an appeal.