×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

A New Legal Battle: Who Owns ‘Happy Birthday to You’?

It may come as a surprise to many that “Happy Birthday to You,” perhaps the most popular song in the English language, falls under copyright, or at least Warner/Chappell Music claims that they own it.

The makers of a documentary on the song, dating to 1893, are challenging the publisher’s collection of royalties for uses of “Happy Birthday,” claiming that the if there ever was a valid copyright to the work, it expired no later than 1921.

In a suit filed on Thursday, Good Morning to You Prods. is asking a New York federal court to issue a declaratory judgment that the work is in the public domain. It also is asking that a class be certified for the return of licensing fees that Warner/Chappell has collected over the years.The suit claims that the publisher, a unit of Warner Music Group, collects at least $2 million a year in license fees.

A spokesman for WMG did not immediately return an inquiry for comment.

The idea that “Happy Birthday” falls under copyright has been the subject of previous dispute, and even justices of the Supreme Court have referred to the song’s claimed legal protections in a landmark case over a 1998 copyright extension act.

The production company says that when it asked for a synchronization license from Warner/Chappell last year, the publisher charged $1,500. The company paid it, fearing that otherwise it would face a legal penalty.

The suit says that “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. That is where it gets murky.

The work has a long, convoluted history, with Warner/Chappell acquiring the company that claimed ownership of the song, Birch Tree Hill, in 1998.

The suit does acknowledge that if Warner/Chappell owns any rights to the song, it is an “extremely narrow right to reproduce specific piano arrangements” published in 1935.

More Film

  • The Jesus Rolls

    Rome Film Review: 'The Jesus Rolls'

    The Jesus lives! The oddball bowling obsessive immortalized by John Turturro in “The Big Lebowski” resurfaces two decades later in “The Jesus Rolls,” a road movie every bit as eccentric as the character he played in the 1998 cult favorite. In a way, the “Lebowski” connection does a disservice to Turturro’s film — an in-spirit [...]

  • Abominable

    Malaysia Orders Cuts to 'Abominable' Over Controversial Map Scene

    Malaysia has ordered cuts to the U.S.-Chinese animated feature “Abominable,” which includes a scene involving a map that portrays China’s contested territorial claims in the South China Sea. The map scene has already caused the film to be banned in Vietnam. The Philippines foreign minister Teodoro Locsin this week called for “Abominable” to be boycotted, [...]

  • Kung Fu Panda 3

    Universal's Beijing Resort to Partner With Alibaba on Digitization

    Amid fierce controversy about the leverage China has over U.S. entertainment firms with significant mainland operations, Universal Beijing Resort and Alibaba announced a strategic partnership Thursday to digitize the forthcoming theme park in China’s capital. Facial recognition and the use of big data will be the norm at the new resort, which will use an [...]

  • They Shall Not Grow Old restoration

    Peter Jackson Documentary 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Nabs Limited China Release

    The Peter Jackson produced and directed World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” will hit Chinese theaters on November 11. Though it will roll out nationwide, it will do so via the China’s National Arthouse Alliance, which has limited screens. The 2018 documentary puts together interviews with WWI veterans and more than 100-year-old [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    'Zombieland: Double Tap' Hopes to Recapture Raunchy Zombie Magic, 10 Years Later

    Audiences may have a few questions about the sequel to 2009’s hit “Zombieland,” which opens Friday. Why did it take 10 years to make a second one, after the first grossed $102.4 million worldwide on a $23 million budget, making it the third-biggest zombie movie of all time (second-biggest if you don’t count “Hotel Transylvania,” [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Theatres Accused of Firing VP Who Complained of Gender Pay Gap

    A former vice president at AMC Theatres filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the company of firing her after she complained that she was paid far less than her male peers. Tonya Mangels, who was vice president of product marketing, said that in March 2018 her supervisor inadvertently sent her a spreadsheet that included [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content