Judge Rules “Happy Birthday to You” Lyrics Not Subject to Copyright
A federal judge ruled this week the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” were not subject to copyright. Warner/Chappell Music claimed to own copyright to the song in a lawsuit filed against them. The suit was filed to have the copyright removed to make the song public domain. The judge ruled Warner/Chappell only had a valid copyright to the various piano arrangements, not the actual lyrics to the song. In 1935 the first copyright only copyrighted the music, not the lyrics, so Warner/Chappell never had a valid copyright on the lyrics.
The original copyrighter Summy Co. in 1935 never acquired the rights to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics, so their predecessors do not own a valid copyright. Warner/Chappell collects about $2 million per year in licensing fees from the song. The lawsuit now seeks to have Warner/Chappell to return all of the money it has wrongfully collected under a claim of copyright ownership.