According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (“ASCAP”), it is the most popular song of the 20th Century and has been sung at birthday parties for over a century. Children off all ages know the melody and words. The song is “Happy Birthday to You.” What many people would be surprised to learn, however, is that Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. (“Warner/Chappell”) holds copyright registrations in “Happy Birthday to You” and has collected millions of dollars in royalties from licenses. That may soon change, however, if Good Morning to You Productions Corp. (“GMTYP”) wins its declaratory judgment action seeking a ruling that “Happy Birthday to You” is not protected by copyright, but is instead in the public domain (add cite to Complaint).
The facts of the case and the history behind the protection of the song are vast and complicated. What is clear is the following: sometime prior to 1893, sisters Mildred and Patty Hill wrote the song “Good Morning to All,” which was published in a songbook titled, Song Stories for the Kindergarten. The melody to “Good Morning to All” is the same as the melody of “Happy Birthday to You.” According to the compliant, the lyrics to Happy Birthday to You were added to the musical composition (and the public began singing the song) no later than the early 1900s. The sheet music (with both the composition and lyrics) to Happy Birthday to You was published in 1928 (presumably for the first time). Warner/Chappell acquired the rights through an acquisition in the late 1990s.
GMTYP is a producer of a documentary film tentatively titled Happy Birthday, which is a film about the song. In 2012, GMTYP requested a permission quote from Warner/Chappell and was informed that a synchronization license would cost $1,500.00. Faced with the threat of significant damages for copyright infringement, GMTYP paid the license fee, but then filed the current declaratory action.
This is not the first time that a dispute over the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You” has made its way through the judicial system, but despite four previous cases regarding the copyrights to “Good Morning to All,” there has never been a judicial determination related to the validity or scope of the copyright. The case is significant to watch since it is rare that a court is asked to review the ownership history and validity of a copyright, especially one that is so well know and generates such significant royalties for the owner. It also a cautionary tale to content users and/or owners regarding the importance of chain of title searches when acquiring or using media libraries or properties.