A federal judge in California will rule in the next few weeks whether or not to throw out the decades-oldcopyright for the song, “Happy Birthday to You.” The copyright’s current owner, Warner/Chappel Music, could potentially owe millions of dollars to people and organizations that have licensed the song in recent years if the judge decides that the copyright on the song is no longer valid.
Federal Copyright Law
Material can be the subject of a copyright if it can be fixed to a tangible medium or is considered writing. Today, the meaning of copyrighted material extends to books, poems, architectural design, software, the graphic arts, motion pictures, and sound recordings among other artistic works.
The federal copyright laws can be found in theU.S. Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 – 180, and the law is based almost completely on when the copyrighted material was created. In 1935, a copyrighted work lasted for 28 years, with another 28 year renewal term. However, since then Congress has expanded the length of a copyright to 95 years from when the copyright protection was first enacted.
“Happy Birthday” Copyright
The lawsuit was filed by a California musician, film producer, and two New York music producers after they had to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to license the use of the well-known song. Warner/Chappel Music has even received licensing fees in the hundreds of thousands when the tune is used in media like a major motion picture. The plaintiffs in this suit claim that the copyright on this song expired decades ago and that they, and other licensees, should get a refund on their fees.
The plaintiffs in this case argue that the latest that the song’s copyright could have expired is 1921. “More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is set was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright [and] . . . the exclusive right to authorize the song’s reproduction, distribution, and public performances.” As a result, the company has collected millions of dollars over the last few decades in unlawful licensing fees and royalties.
Every year, Warner/Chappel Music earns about $2 million in licensing fees for the song “Happy Birthday to You.” They argue in the lawsuit that the plaintiffs in this case “knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known” that they didn’t have a valid copyright to the song.” The company and other copyright holders worry that finding in the plaintiffs’ favor could make it harder to collect licensing fees and royalties on songs that are a common part of today’s culture.
Complicating this particular matter is the history of the “Happy Birthday” song. It was originally created in either 1889 or 1890 by Mildred and Patty Hill. It was then purchased by Clayton Summy and published in a children’s book under the title, “Good Morning to All.” However, the lyrics are different than they are today. Mr. Summy’s company then officially copyright “Happy Birthday to You” in 1935, which is the version of the song that is now at issue. Warner/Chappel Music acquired the copyright to the song when it bought Mr. Summy’s successor company in 1988.
Contact a California Copyright Attorney
If you or someone that you know has questions regarding copyright law in Pleasanton, Alameda County, or the Tri-Valley area let the experienced attorneys atGarcia & Gurney help. Call orcontact the office today for a confidential review of your claims.