In a highly fact-dependent analysis that traced its way through more than a century’s worth of evidence, a federal judge in California has ruled in Marya v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. that Warner/Chappell Music, the purported owner of the copyright in the lyrics to the ubiquitous ‘Happy Birthday’ song, does not in fact own a valid copyright registration on the lyrics.
The issue is more than an academic one, since Warner/Chappell collects approximately $2 million dollars per year in licensing fees stemming from the use of the Happy Birthday song in television and movies, stage productions, and other public performances of the song. The plaintiffs (which included a group of filmmakers who paid for a license to use the song in a documentary they were creating) filed a class action lawsuit, seeking a judgment that Warner/Chapell does not own the copyright to the song’s lyrics and asking the court to order the return of millions of dollars of fees paid by licensees since at least 1988, when Warner/Chappell allegedly acquired the copyright.
The parties agreed that the copyright to the melody to ‘Happy Birthday’ had become part of the public domain decades ago, so the dispute was focused solely on rights in the lyrics. Warner/Chappell contended that sisters Patty and Mildred Hill composed the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics in the late 19th century, maintained common law copyrights in the lyrics for over 30 years, and then transferred the rights to a company called Summy Co., which allegedly registered the copyright to the lyrics in 1935. Through a series of subsequent transfers, Warner/Chappell acquired the copyright registration in 1988. The plaintiffs disputed various elements of the Warner/Chappell’s version of the copyright’s history, including by questioning which sisters composed the lyrics and whether the sisters had assigned their common law rights to Summy Co. in 1935, as well as asserting that the copyright rights had been abandoned in the years before Warner/Chappell acquired them.
The court found that there were triable issues of fact regarding which Hill sisters composed the original lyrics, and that those issues of fact prevented the court from reaching a definitive ruling on issues of abandonment. However, the court did determine that the record did not support Warner/Chappell’s contention that the Hill sisters had assigned their copyright rights in the lyrics to Summy Co. in 1935, and therefore Warner/Chappell was not the successor-in-interest to those rights. As a result, the court ruled on summary judgment that Warner/Chappell does not own a valid copyright on the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics.
Notable more for its result than any significant evolution in copyright law, there still remains a question of whether the plaintiffs will succeed in obtaining a judgment requiring Warner/Chappell to disgorge licensing fees it has collected over the years. In the meantime, filmmakers, stage directors, and other public performers can rest a little easier knowing that Warner/Chappell will not come calling with a request for licensing fees whenever a performer belts out ‘Happy Birthday’.