Dec 15, 2015

Candles Are Blown Out In "Happy Birthday Lyrics" Dispute

On 17 November 2015, we reported that a US charity called the Association for Childhood Education International ("ACEI") filed a motion on 9 November 2015 to intervene in the long-running "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics dispute.

Settlement has now been reached in the lawsuit over whether "Happy Birthday to You", is owned by a music publisher who earned millions by enforcing its copyrights and offering royalties. A US district judge had ruled in September 2015 that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. did not own the lyrics to the song, only some musical arrangements, and thus the company had no rights to charge for its use. This was a major victory for those seeking to put the song in the public domain.

A trial had been scheduled to begin next week in Los Angeles which may have finally decided whether the lyrics sung to generations of people around the world really are in the public domain. Also to be decided was whether Warner/Chappell would have to return any of the licensing fees – estimated at up to $2 m (£1.3 million) a year – that were collected for use of the song in movies, television shows and other commercial ventures. The cost of licensing is why so many films feature people being serenaded on their birthday with 'For He's A Jolly Good Fellow' which is in the public domain.

On 8 December, Judge King vacated the trial, saying all parties in the case had agreed to settle. "It resolves all issues," said Randall Scott Newman, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs.  Details of the settlement which is awaiting the Judge's approval, have not been released . However, the previous ruling and the settlement strongly imply that the lyrics will become available for free.

The tune, with different lyrics, was written in 1893 by Patty Smith Hill, a Kentucky kindergarten teacher, and her sister, Mildred J Hill. They called it Good Morning to All. They assigned the rights to that and other songs to Clayton F Summy, who copyrighted and published them in a book titled 'Song Stories for the Kindergarten'. Over the years, the rights passed from the Clayton F Summy Co to Birch Tree Group and then to Warner when it bought Birch Tree in 1988. The lyrics we sing today were written in 1911.

King ruled that Summy Co never actually acquired the rights to the lyrics, only to piano arrangements of the melody and thus its successor had no valid copyright.

Posted by: in: Case Law, Copyright, News

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