Judge rules the 'Happy Birthday' song is not under copyright protection

A birthday cake.
(Image credit: iStock)

Go ahead, belt out "Happy Birthday" whenever you can, wherever you are: A judge ruled on Tuesday that Warner/Chappell Music does not hold a valid copyright claim to the song.

U.S. District Judge George H. King decided that in the 1930s, Summy Co. acquired the rights to the melody and piano arrangements based on the melody, but not the lyrics, Variety reports. Since Warner purchased Birch Tree Group, the successor to Summy Co., in 1998, it has collected license fees for use of the song in television shows, movies, and other productions, with some estimating that the publisher has brought in close to $2 million a year in royalties.

The song can be traced to the 1893 book "Song Stories for Kindergarten," which featured a ditty called "Good Morning to All," written by sisters Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill. The lyrics to "Happy Birthday To You" were adapted from that song's melody, and King wrote that the sisters "for decades... did not try to obtain federal copyright protection.... In 1934... they finally asserted their rights to the 'Happy Birthday/Good Morning' melody — but still made no claim to the lyrics."

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An attorney for the plaintiffs, which included a filmmaker working on a documentary about the song, said the decision means "Happy Birthday To You" is now in the public domain. "There is no one, really, who can claim an ownership to the song," Mark Rifkin said. Now, he said, a judge has to look into whether Warner/Chappell has to return the money it collected through licensing.

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Catherine Garcia

Catherine Garcia is night editor for TheWeek.com. Her writing and reporting has appeared in Entertainment Weekly and EW.com, The New York Times, The Book of Jezebel, and other publications. A Southern California native, Catherine is a graduate of the University of Redlands and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.