Watching a revenue stream of two million dollars a year evaporate with a single ruling, Warner/Chappell Music has lost the copyright to popular birthday song ‘Happy Birthday to You’ after a federal judge ruled the lyrics weren’t protected anymore. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought against Warner/Chappell by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was originally forced to pay Warner/Chappell $1,500 to use the song in her documentary.
Warner/Chappell attempted to argue that the copyright was valid since the company purchased Birch Tree Group, a company that was the successor to the original copyright owner, Clayton F. Summy Co.. Detailing in his ruling, U.S. District Judge George H. King stated that Summy Co. was only granted rights to arrange the music in different ways, not a specific copyright on the lyrics.
As of today, anyone will be able to sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in films, television shows, plays or essentially any public performance without paying Warner/Chappell a royalty. During 2014, Stephen Colbert made fun of the fact that Warner Music was charging people money to sing the song. Shown in the clip below from a classic episode of The Colbert Report, he created a new, royalty-free Happy Birthday song sung to the tune of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ a song that was already in the public domain.
Speaking about the judge’s decision, Nelson said it was a “great victory for musicians, artists and people around the world who have waited decades for this.” As expected, representatives for Warner/Chappell Music said “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.” Interestingly, Nelson’s attorneys are looking into the option of a class-action lawsuit, specifically to reclaim the millions in royalties that Warner/Chappell has collected over the years.