A judge in the US has ruled that the song ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is not under copyright and that the company that owns the rights to it is not entitled to payment if it is used in films or for any other purpose.
The tune of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ was written by two sisters from Kentucky in 1893. Patty and Mildred Hill composed the tune and called it Good Morning to All. It later evolved to become the song everyone sings at birthday parties.
The copyright was filed in 1935 and Warner/Chappell acquired it in 1988 when it bought Birch Tree Group, who had the original copyright. Warner/Chappell have since been collecting payment for its use.
It is thought that around £1.3million is made every year through the charging for the use of Happy Birthday to You in films, television programmes, advertisements or any other public performances.
An issue arose when Warner/Chappell asked for roughly £1,000 from Rupa Marya and Robert Siegel who decided to make a film about the song. Marya and Siegel argued that the song was in the public domain and therefore should not be subject to copyright fees.
The case was taken to the courts where Judge George King ruled that the copyright was only granted for specific arrangements of the piano music, and not the song itself.
This could significantly affect Warner/Chappell as one of Marya and Siegel’s lawyers is now looking to get a court order forcing Warner/Chappell to return all the money collected from everyone who has had to pay a licensing fee or royalty to use Happy Birthday to You all the way back to 1988!
At the moment the case just stands in the US, so anyone wanting to use the song for commercial purposes in the UK should take care and ensure they have got the correct legal advice regarding the use of the song. In the future it may be cleared for use within the UK without the need to pay a licensing fee or royalties.
If you have any legal questions about copyright, be it your own or using something that is under copyright, please contact our team of intellectual property lawyers at Slater and Gordon. You can call us on freephone 0800 906 9052 or contact us online and we will call you.