After 80 years, Happy Birthday song is finally in the public domain

A federal judge in Los Angeles today delivered "a stunning reversal of decades of copyright claims," as the LA Times put it. Warner/Chappell Music does not hold a valid copyright claim to the "Happy Birthday To You" song. The royalties they demanded were not theirs to demand.

U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled today that the copyright originally filed by the Clayton F. Summy Co. in 1935 granted only rights to specific arrangements of the tune, not the actual song itself.

The decision is a big win for filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who is working on a documentary about the history of the song. Her film just got a lot more interesting. Nelson challenged Warner/Chappell Music's claim to the lyrics, which had them to demand money from anyone who used the song for many years.


From the LA Times:

Warner had been enforcing its copyright claim since it paid $15 million to buy Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which owned the original copyright. The song brings in about $2 million a year in royalties for Warner, according to some estimates.

Judge George H. King ruled Tuesday afternoon that a copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific arrangements of the music, not the actual song.

Judge George H. King's ruling is available here, and well worth a read.

"Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics," he wrote, "Defendants, as Summy Co.'s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics."

More coverage: Billboard, AP, Hollywood Reporter, Variety.