No matter your birthday, you just got a gift.
A California federal judge ruled Tuesday that “Happy Birthday to You” does not belong to the mega music corporation that has long claimed it. Instead, the world’s most popular song belongs to, well, the world.
The ruling brings to an end an intense two-year legal standoff between a handful of independent filmmakers and massive company Warner Music. It also throws into doubt as much as $50 million in licensing fees collected by the music giant over the past 27 years, raising the possibility of a class-action lawsuit to come.
The decision by U.S. District Judge George H. King delighted the plaintiffs, who portrayed their lawsuit as a David-versus-Goliath battle over the so-called “birthday song.”
“‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” Randall Newman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Los Angeles Times. “Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.”
Warner/Chappell, the publishing arm of Warner Music, told the newspaper that the company is “looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”
Tuesday’s ruling could have a much broader impact than money from licensing fees or even movie scenes, however. Instead, it could allow businesses of all types — from TV shows to Broadway plays to greeting cards to your local restaurant — to use “Happy Birthday” without fear of a lawsuit.
“Warner/Chappell has been squeezing money out of a lot of people for a long time,” Michael Donaldson, an attorney at Donaldson + Callif who has represented several of the plaintiffs in the past, told The Washington Post.
“The song belongs to the American people.”
Many Americans will be surprised that its ownership was ever in doubt. “Happy Birthday” is sung millions — perhaps billions — of times every year, all around the globe, at home, in schools, on television and in movies. It “is quite likely the most sung music in history, including all the output of the three B’s, Beethoven, Bach and The Beatles,” according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Despite its ubiquity, however, “Happy Birthday to You” has been claimed by Warner since 1988, when the company bought its copyright. That meant that anyone wanting to use the song for commercial purposes — such as in a film, Broadway play or on television — would have to pay at least $1,500.
Lots of people did. Warner/Chappell makes an estimated $5,000 per day, or $2 million per year, licensing the rights to the song. (Donaldson, the entertainment attorney, said that number is low. “I think when they dig into it, it’s going to be a lot more than $2 million per year,” he told The Post.)
In 2013, however, a group of filmmakers sued Warner/Chappell, arguing that the company didn’t actually own the song and, therefore, couldn’t charge people to use it.
For two years, and in several federal courts, both sides have dropped documentary bombs on the other.
Most recently, Jennifer Nelson, a former X-Games biker turned filmmaker who is not only a plaintiff in the case but is also making a documentary about the song and the legal battle, unearthed “a proverbial smoking-gun” that “proves conclusively that there is no copyright to the Happy Birthday lyrics.”
The “proof”: a 1922 songbook containing “Happy Birthday” but no copyright, a finding that, Nelson and her attorneys argued, undermined Warner/Chappell’s claim to ownership.
Warner/Chappell “should admit defeat but they won’t because too much money is at stake,” Newman said at the time.
Indeed, Warner/Chappell did not admit defeat. Instead, the company dropped a document of its own: a long-lost copy of the 1935 copyright that Warner purchased half a century later.
On Tuesday, Judge King finally weighed in on the not-so-happy song scuffle. In his 43-page decision, King retraced the tangled roots of the song, from its alleged creation by Patty Hill, a pioneering Kentucky kindergarten teacher, and her older sister Mildred in 1889 to its widespread adoption during the early 20th century.
Then the judge came down firmly against the corporation.
King ruled that Warner/Chappell’s claim to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics were simply not supported by the facts. The Hill sisters “did not try to obtain federal copyright protection” and so could not pass those rights on to another company, and eventually to Warner, King wrote. And when a copyright was registered in 1935, it was for a particular piano melody, not the lyrics, King pointed out. Besides, by then “Happy Birthday” was already solidly in the public domain.
The decision means that the plaintiffs — and possibly many other people, from filmmakers to greeting card companies and restaurant chains, all of whom have paid Warner/Chappell to use the song — will get their money back, Donaldson said. The next step is a class-action suit, he said, the scope of which will, once again, be decided in court.
But Donaldson said that Tuesday’s decision is about more than money. It’s about the little guys.
“Everybody in their daily lives has to deal with big companies, big companies that tell them ‘you have to do things our way because we’re big and you’re just a little individual,’” he said. “And here it is, a whole bunch of little individuals got together and they took it to court and won. That’s always a victory.
“When you see a group go to court and win, whether it’s for overtime pay or the Happy Birthday song or being charged too much by a bank, that’s always a victory for everybody,” Donaldson added. “It sort of makes everybody understand that the system also works for the individual as well as big companies. I know sometime we lose faith that, that’s true, and then we see a case like this and you say: ‘Yeah, the system’s still working.’”
So happy birthday, America. Go ahead and sing.