Happy Birthday Song Is Not Protected By Copyright According To Recent Lawsuit

International music publisher Warner/Chappell is being sued by filmmakers that claim to have found proof that the Happy Birthday song is not protected by copyright.

Happy Birthday is reportedly the world’s most popular song, yet most films and television programmes will not use it because publisher Warner/Chappell owns the copyright.

The music publisher has famously enforced its right to receive royalties from anyone using the song, and it earns approximately $2m every year as the copyright holder.

HHowever, Warner/Chappell’s Happy Birthday rights have been called into question after documentary filmmakers filed a lawsuit against the company, arguing that they should not have to pay $1,500 to use the song in their film.

Legal representatives acting on behalf of the production company have argued that their client discovered an original songbook from 1927, which precedes Warner/Chappell’s copyright by eight years and includes the Happy Birthday song without any copyright notice.

An integral part of the lawsuit is based on the fact that when music and lyrics are published with the authors’ permission, but without a copyright notice, which was the case with the 1927 songbook as well as earlier books dating back to 1922, they then fall into the public domain.

Sisters Parry and Mildred Hill are widely acknowledged as being responsible for writing Happy Birthday in 1883, after modifying a song they had already written by adding new lyrics.

The 1935 copyright claim came from the Summy Company, and ownership of the copyright passed to Warner/Chappell in 1988.

However, the filmmakers are arguing that the 1935 copyright should only apply to a specific arrangement or alteration of the song.

While the copyright will expire in the EU by 31st December 2016 the song will be protected in the US until 2030.

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Maung Aye
Maung is a partner in our Corporate and Commercial department. He joined Mackrell Turner Garrett following corporate law positions in London and in a leading regional firm in Essex.
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