Nov 17, 2015

Charity With Royalty Stake in 'Happy Birthday' Enters Dispute

'Happy Birthday To You' is one of the most popular songs in history so much so that the Guinness Book of Records claims it as the most recognisable song in the English language.

On 22 September 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California considered whether Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. ("Warner") owned the copyright to the lyrics (as distinct from the melody which is already in the public domain).

District Court Judge, George H. King, held that Warner, which had been receiving approximately $2million per year in royalties, failed to adduce any convincing evidence that it owned the copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics. The Judge ruled that parts of Warner's arguments were implausible and unreasonable. Consequently, in the absence of any other claim over the copyright, the Happy Birthday lyrics are now in the public domain.

In a new twist, a US charity called the Association for Childhood Education International ("ACEI") filed a motion on 9 November 2015 to intervene in the case. The charity identifies itself as being co-founded by Patty Hill, the schoolteacher who wrote Happy Birthday in the late 19th century.

ACEI, which works with the United Nations and gathers information about childhood education throughout the world and provides students with grants and awards, says that it was bequeathed full interest in the Hill Foundation, which itself receives a third of all Happy Birthday income for over twenty years, thanks to a 1944 agreement. ACEI's lawyers are therefore claiming that their organisation is heavily reliant on this revenue to continue operating as a charity.

ACEI argue that the song's original author and her sister, Jessica Hill, had directly assigned rights to Summy Co – which would make Warner the song's rightful controller when they were acquired. When Jessica Hill died in 1951, her will directed income from certain assets – including the royalty stream paid by third parties for public performance use of the Happy Birthday lyrics – to her nephew, Archibald Hill.

ACEI claims that there is a further clause whereby if Hill died without any biological or adopted children, the rights were to pass to ACEI. Archibald Hill died in 1992 with no children. "As a result, as the author of the lyrics in the Song, it is very likely that Patty Hill still possessed all copyrights in those lyrics at the time of her death," states the ACEI motion.

The charity commented further by stating, "As the beneficiaries of Jessica Hill's estate, both ACEI and the Hill Foundation have a very real and present interest in this litigation." If it turned out that Warner does not own the copyright in those famous lyrics, then it is possible for them to hold the rights as legitimate heirs.

ACEI awaits a decision on whether its intervention is deemed justified and 'timely' considering how far the case has progressed.

in: Case Law, Copyright, News

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