Happy Birthday to All of Us
We can now sing the Happy Birthday song without paying a royalty. For decades, Warner/Chappell Music Inc. claimed to own, and demanded royalties to use, the lyrics to Happy Birthday song. The royalties ran between $1,500 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The plaintiffs in Good Morning to You Productions Corp. v. Warner/Chappell Music, sued claiming that Warner/Chappell’s copyright in the lyrics was invalid (the melody was already in the public domain). A judge recently ruled in the plaintiff’s favor. The reason for the ruling? It isn’t clear cut. The judge only ruled that Warner/Chappell didn’t have the copyright. Some commentators are saying that the ruling means that the lyrics are in the public domain. Not exactly. There was evidence that the lyrics were written in 1893 which means the copyright had long expired. That means that the 1934 copyright registration could be invalid or forfeited because the lyrics weren’t an original work of authorship. And, there was no evidence that Warner/Chappell’s assignor ever got an assignment from the two sisters who wrote the lyrics. Does that mean that someone else could step up and claim ownership of the copyright? It’s a possibility but they’d have to explain why they’ve been sitting on their rights for decades.
TAKE AWAY: The saga of the Happy Birthday song shows the importance of due diligence. If you’re going to acquire someone else’s copyright, or any Intellectual Property for that matter, make sure they own what they say they own. Warner/Chappell’s due diligence failed at some point and it’s now facing a class action suit. If Warner/Chappell loses the next phase of the litigation, it might have to return millions of dollars in royalties.