This week, in Rupa Marya, et al. v. Warner/Chappel Music, Inc., et al., No. CV 13-4460-GHK (C.D. Cal. Sept. 22, 2015), U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled that defendant Warner/Chappel Music has no enforceable copyright for the ubiquitous song “Happy Birthday to You.” The ruling resolves cross motions for summary judgment filed in November 2014 by Warner and by the representative plaintiffs in this class action suit, challenging Warner’s assertion of copyright of the song and seeking recoupment of millions of dollars of licensing fees collected by Warner over the years. It was Warner’s demand that plaintiff Good Morning to You Productions, which planned to make a documentary about the song, pay a $1,500 license fee as a condition for incorporating “Happy Birthday” into its production that was the catalyst for this litigation.
The controversy focused exclusively on the lyrics of “Happy Birthday to You,” all parties conceding that the famous musical tune had passed into the public domain long ago. Copyright law for musical compositions recognizes separate, independent rights in the music and in the words accompanied by the music. Warner asserted that it was the successor to a copyright covering the lyrics that had been registered in 1935. The plaintiffs contended that that copyright registration covered only a particular piano arrangement of the music and did not cover the lyrics, which plaintiffs claim are in the public domain.
The tune that we all know as “Happy Birthday” was originally composed in the late 19th century as a children’s song with different lyrics, titled “Good Morning to You,” by sisters Mildred and Patti Hill. An evidentiary record resembling an archeological dig, covering documents, press reports, court testimony, and other material from the turn of the 20th century through the early 1940s, could not conclusively resolve who actually wrote the “Happy Birthday” lyrics (maybe Patti Hill, maybe someone else). But Judge Hill, in an exhaustive 43-page memorandum and order, emphatically concluded that Warner had failed to produce any evidence sufficient to prove, or even to support a reasonable inference, that the author of those famous words (whoever that may be) had ever transferred the copyright of the “Happy Birthday” lyrics to the entity that had filed the 1935 copyright registration. Therefore, Warner’s claim of copyright ownership as successor in interest to that copyright registration fails. Under this ruling, both the lyrics and the music of “Happy Birthday” are in the public domain.
Subject to any reconsideration or modification of this ruling, the court will next turn to adjudication of the plaintiff class’s claims for recoupment of licensing fees unlawfully collected by Warner based on a nonexistent copyright on the “Happy Birthday” lyrics. This decision is not yet final and is subject to appeal.