Ownership of a copyright in one of the most popular songs in the English language has recently been challenged in several lawsuits around the country. At the heart of the dispute is whether the music publisher Warner Chappell legitimately owns a copyright in, and thus has the right to license (and enforce) the rights to, the ubiquitous song “Happy Birthday to You.” Since it acquired a company in 1998 that claimed to own the rights in this song, some have estimated that Warner makes as much as $2M per year licensing the rights to use this song in various movies and television shows. Two recently filed lawsuits are challenging this ownership claim and seek a ruling that the rights to the song have passed into the public domain.
The long and tortured history of the song, which has been methodically detailed by Professor Robert Brauneis in his excellent article on the topic, begins with the melody of the song which was originally written in the late 19th Century by two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill. Although there is still some dispute over the originality of the melody, Professor Bauneis’s research indicates it may have been wholly original even if loosely based on prior folk songs. What is undisputed, however, is that the Hill sisters’ melody was first published in a collection of children’s songs in 1893. That melody (with different lyrics) was originally titled “Good Morning to All,” and was intended to be used as a greeting by teachers to their students. What may be forever lost to history is who combined the current words with the Hill sisters’ melody and when. There is evidence from as early as 1911 that the current words and melody (i.e., the “Good Morning to All” melody) were being used together.
Warner argues that its rights stem from two principal sources acquired over the years through many corporate mergers: (1) a 1935 piano arrangement of the melody of the song, which critics have noted is a specific arrangement of the song that is not the popular version known today, and (2) a copyright registration in a 1924 songbook containing the lyrics.
The suits challenge Warner’s claimed rights on several grounds. One is lack of originality. To be protected by copyright, a work must be sufficiently “original.” Plaintiffs allege that Warner’s claimed versions of the song are not original enough, and do not protect the version of the song we know today. Second, they allege that the version of the music in which Warner claims rights, the specific 1935 piano arrangement of the song, is not sufficiently similar to the current version to enable it to claim any rights in the current version. Finally, according to the Plaintiffs, any copyright in the prior versions expired long ago, either through term limits on copyright protection or through the failure of the original owners to properly renew those rights many years ago.
Since the license fees Warner charges for use of the song are not exorbitant, there has been little financial incentive for anyone to take Warner to court over the rights to the song. Since multiple litigations are now pending, there will likely be amicus briefs filed on plaintiffs’ side from many sources. This “crowdsourcing” of history, knowledge and effort (and cost) in re-creating as accurate a picture as possible of the history of the rights of this song is probably the best chance yet of getting to the bottom of the long open question regarding the ownership of “Happy Birthday to You.”