If you're a movie or television character, you know that singing "Happy Birthday" at a party is an expensive extravagance. While there are easy workarounds, like singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" or making up a new song entirely, it's really just not the same as the old familiar tune. Luckily, characters will soon be able to sing the real thing, thanks to a federal ruling in Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, federal Judge George H. King ruled that Warner/Chappell Music, the group that has been raking in an estimated $2 million a year from "Happy Birthday," never really had ownership of the copyright. Warner has been charging for royalties on the song since 1988, when the company purchased Birch Tree Group, the successor to the Clayton F. Summy Co., which owned the original copyright.
Mildred and Patty Hill, creators of the original "Good Morning to All" song on which "Happy Birthday" is based, assigned their rights to their publisher, Clayton F. Summy. While the song shares the same tune and arrangement as "Happy Birthday," the lyrics are different. "Good Morning to All" has already entered the public domain, but Warner/Chappell claimed that "Happy Birthday" was still under their ownership, thanks to a copyright claim that was filed by Summy in 1935. Over the years, there has been a lot of squabbling amongst lawyers about whether "Happy Birthday" was really written by the Hill sisters, if they had abandoned their rights, and/or if the song was invented by the public.
In yesterday's ruling, Judge King determined that Warner/Chappell only has the copyright for the arrangement of the music and not the actual tune or lyrics. As a result, the well-known song can finally enter the public domain, making it free for the public to use.
"'Happy Birthday' is finally free after 80 years," said Randall Newman, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the suit.
Finally, television and movie characters can sing the song the rest of us have been singing for over 100 years.