A filmmaker and the lead musician of Rupa & The April Fishes have filed lawsuits against Warner/Chappell Music, claiming that the rights to “Happy Birthday to You” are in the public domain and joining a legal challenge to the publisher’s collection of licensing fees for the standard.
Robert Siegel, writer director of the 2009 movie “Big Fan,” said in the federal suit that he was forced to pay $3,000 to Warner/Chappell because it was performed in one scene of his project. The suit claims that the work is actually in the public domain, and has been so no later than 1921.
Rupa Marya, lead musician of Rupa & The April Fishes, said that she had to obtain a mechanical license costing $455 for use in a live album. The song was sung because her live performance in San Francisco took place on her birthday.
A spokesman for Warner Music Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Their suits, which seek class action status, were filed in Los Angeles. Last week, a filmmaker in Manhattan, Jennifer Nelson, filed suit against Warner/Chappell, also challenging the publisher’s claim to the work and a declaration that it is in the public domain.She has been creating a documentary on the origins of the song.
“Happy Birthday” originated in an 1893 manuscript for sheet music that included the song, “Good Morning to All,” which was written by Mildred J. Hill and her sister, Patty Smith Hill. The lyrics to “Happy Birthday” were adapted to the melody of that song some time in the early part of the 20th century, but the sisters did not write those words. But after that, the work has a long, convoluted history.
Warner/Chappell acquired the company that claimed ownership of the song, Birch Tree Hill, in 1998.
Mark Rifkin of the law firm of Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz is representing Nelson in the New York case, along with attorney Randall Newman. Another Wolf Haldenstein partner, Betsy Manifold, is representing Marya and Siegal. Marya also has Daniel Schacht of Donahue Gallagher Woods as counsel.