×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Court Keeps Candles Lit on Dispute Over ‘Happy Birthday’ Copyright

A group of filmmakers and a San Francisco musician are challenging Warner/Chappell Music’s claim to copyright ownership of what is perhaps the most popular song of all time — “Happy Birthday to You” — and on Monday a federal judge mapped out a plan of how the dispute will proceed.

At a hearing on Warner/Chappell’s effort to dismiss much of the case, U.S. District Judge George H. King instead indicated that he would seek to “bifurcate” the proceedings, first considering the question of whether the music publisher has ownership over “Happy Birthday” before going on to other legal claims, if needed, such as violation of California’s unfair competition laws and breach of contract. Still to be determined is whether the suit will be certified as a class action, as the plaintiffs claim that the publisher has collected millions over the years for a song it does not own.

The suits filed last summer contend that Warner/Chappell has been collecting license fees for the song even though it is in the public domain. The plaintiffs claim that the song “is neither copyrighted nor copyrightable,” and that the public began singing it “no later than the early 1900s.”

Attorneys for Warner/Chappell, however, say that they will submit as evidence certificates of a 1935 copyright registration for “Happy Birthday to You” that covers the lyrics and piano arrangements. One of the publisher’s attorneys, Kelly Klaus of Munger, Tolles & Olson, said at the hearing that they “think this case will end very quickly on the merits.”

The plaintiffs challenge that the song could have been copyrighted in 1935, arguing that the words were not original at the time of the registration, save for a second verse that is seldom if ever performed, said their attorney, Mark Rifkin of Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz. The plaintiffs also have contended that the scope of the 1935 copyright is limited to the piano arrangements.

Another question is whether two of the plaintiffs, Robert Siegel and Major Prods., will eventually be dismissed from the case as the statute of limitations for copyright claims is three years. In 2009, Siegel paid Warner/Chappell $3,000 to use “Happy Birthday” in his movie “Big Fan,” and that same year Majar paid the publisher $5,000 to use the song in the documentary film “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos.”

The other plaintiffs licensed the song more recently. Rupa Marya paid Warner/Chappell $455 to use the song in a live album, and the makers of a documentary on the history of the song, tentatively titled “Happy Birthday,” paid $1,500 to license the song.

The work has a long, convoluted history. The plaintiffs’ suit traces “Happy Birthday” to 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 sometime in the early part of the 20th century, but the sisters did not write those words. If there ever was a copyright to the song, the plaintiffs contend, it expired long ago, not later than 1921.

Warner/Chappell acquired the company that claimed ownership of the song, Birch Tree Hill, in 1998.

Popular on Variety

More Music

  • U2, Seattle 14 May 2017

    U2 to Finish 'Joshua Tree' 2019 Tour With Band's First Gig in India

    U2 is wrapping up its 2019 “The Joshua Tree” tour with a concert at Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium, on Dec. 15 – the first time the group will have performed in India. The newly added date comes at the end of an Asia-Pacific tour that was announced months ago. The tour is a continuation of [...]

  • Crime Placeholder

    Former AEG, First Access Exec Adam Lublin Charged With Sexual Abuse, Burglary

    Adam Lublin, a former executive at AEG and First Access Entertainment, was arraigned Monday morning in Manhattan Criminal Court on two counts of burglary and one count of sexual abuse, according to the New York Post. The executive allegedly snuck into a neighbor’s apartment, sexually abused her and stole her undergarments. According to the report, [...]

  • Kendrick Lamar House Manhattan Beach

    Kendrick Lamar Drops Nearly $10 Million on Manhattan Beach Mansion

    When he’s not performing to packed arenas worldwide — the international “Damn” tour wrapped up last year with over $62 million in gross receipts — Kendrick Lamar has long resided in L.A.’s South Bay region, specifically in the posh seaside city of Manhattan Beach. And after a reported long spell as an area home renter, [...]

  • Benjamin Wallfisch - scoring session, Abbey

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch Signs With Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has signed with the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for worldwide representation, in partnership with London-based agency COOL Music Ltd. A top composer, whose scoring credits include “It Chapter Two,” Shazam!” Hellboy,” “Hidden Figures” and “Hostile Planet,” among others, Wallfisch has worked on over 75 feature films and is a member of the BAFTA [...]

  • Spotify logo is presented on a

    Spotify VP Paul Vogel Talks Subscription Prices, Label Licenses, Podcasts

    The annual Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference gives representatives from major companies the opportunity to present to the investment community, and Paul Vogel, Spotify’s VP and head of financial planning & analysis, treasury and investor relations, spoke on the streaming giant’s behalf on Tuesday morning. While many of his comments were statements frequently heard in the [...]

  • Def Jam, Astralwerks Launch Label Divisions

    Def Jam, Astralwerks Launch Label Divisions in South East Asia

    Universal Music Group today announced what it calls a significant expansion of its recorded music operations across South East Asia with the launch of two new label divisions: Def Jam South East Asia, to focus on the hip-hop scene within the region, and Astralwerks Asia, a label “with a true focus on nurturing talent within Asia across [...]

  • WME Nashville Promotes Becky Gardenhire to

    WME Nashville Promotes Becky Gardenhire to Co-Head

    Becky Gardenhire has been elevated by WME to the role of co-head of the Nashville office, making her the woman holding the highest rank at any agency rooted in the city. Gardenhire joins three other co-heads of WME Nashville, Scott Clayton, Joey Lee and Jay Williams. While Nashville agencies have been caught up in a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content