Not a Happy Birthday for Warner/Chappell

In a decision that undoes years of licensing agreements, the United States District Court in California reached a decision on Tuesday in the case Rupa Marya, et. al. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., ruling that the classic song “Happy Birthday To You” is not owned by publisher Warner/Chappell.

The story of the song’s beginning has never been in dispute. The melody was written by Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred J. Hill in 1893. That song—originally for kindergarten students to sing—was named “Good Morning To All.” The sisters assigned their copyright in the song to Clayton F. Summy Co., and it was originally published in a collection called Song Stories for the Kindergarten. “Good Morning To All” has long since entered the public domain, but new lyrics were written to its melody, and the song “Happy Birthday To You” was created.

That’s where agreement about the song’s history ends. At issue in this case was whether the sisters wrote the lyrics for “Happy Birthday To You” and whether their publisher, Summy Co., ever actually obtained the rights to it. This question is vital to Warner/Chappell; the company collects licensing income on “Happy Birthday To You”, with some estimates of the song’s value reaching $2M in annual revenue.

Warner/Chappell always claimed that the Hill sisters wrote the new lyrics, and like their earlier work, transferred them to Summy Co. The new “Happy Birthday To You” lyrics were then registered by Summy Co., in 1935, meaning that under copyright law, Warner/Chappell would own them until 2030. (Warner/Chappell obtained the rights to the Summy Co., catalog when it purchased the then-owner Birch Tree Group Limited in 1988.) However, filmmaker Jennifer Nelson challenged that claim in a 2013 lawsuit seeking to invalidate the copyright. Nelson was working on a documentary about the song “Happy Birthday To You”, and after having to license the rights from Warner/Chappell, decided that the evidence she uncovered during production would be enough to sway a court.

The history of the song is extremely complicated, with numerous inconsistencies, among them:

Several copyright claims to “Good Morning To All” have expired or found to be invalid;

  • certain copyright registrations were not properly made or renewed;

  • nobody is quite sure as to the authorship of the “Happy Birthday” lyrics;

  • even if they wrote the new lyrics, the Hill sisters never asserted that they owned the copyright in “Happy Birthday To You”; and,

  • a 1935 registration for the song was for a piano arrangement and doesn’t protect the original work.

All of these issues made it difficult to ascertain who the rightful owner is. In going through all the evidence, the court considered the numerous agreements between the sisters and their publisher, as well as the registrations that were filed with the Copyright Office. The Court looked at the claims that were made as to authorship, including Patti’s comments that the song was already in the public domain. And adding an extra level of intrigue to the case, earlier publications surfaced, placing Warner/Chappell’s timeline in doubt.

Ultimately, the court found that it was impossible to claim with certainty that the Hill sisters wrote the lyrics to “Happy Birthday To You”, and even if they did, the sisters never did anything to assert their ownership. Additionally, the court found that while they may have assigned their rights to the underlying music to Summy Co., the publisher never obtained the rights to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics and therefore Warner/Chappell does not own the song “Happy Birthday To You”.

This is a tremendous defeat for Warner, not just because of the loss of the revenue, but because they may now be forced to return licensing money received because of their erroneous claim. It is likely Warner/Chappell will appeal, so we will have to wait and see what comes next.