ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Have you ever wondered why the popular song 'Happy Birthday to You' rarely appears in films or television programs? Well, traditionally, it's because the song was subject to copyright held by Warner/Chappell Music Inc., meaning any film, television program or public performance of the song would have to be paid for. That is until today.

A US federal judge, George King, has just ruled that Warner/Chappell does not hold a valid copyright to all performances of the song - meaning it is no longer subject to copyright royalties. King stated that Warner/Chappell, which gained the rights to the song after they acquired Birch Tree Group in 1988, only held the copyright to four specific piano arrangements of the original tune - and not the lyrics.

The song was first composed by two Kentucky sisters in 1893 and was originally titled 'Good Morning to All,' before being changed to the well-known birthday song. The original copyright was acquired in 1935 by Clayton F Summy Co which subsequently became part of Birch Tree Group.

It is claimed that since acquiring the rights in 1988, Warner/Chappell has gained around $2 million a year as it charged every time the song was heard on film, television, radio and even small scale public events. The song did famously appear in Bridget Jones's Diary, but you can expect Universal paid a pretty penny to use it. You can check out that scene below:

The case was brought to court by Rupa Marya and Robert Siegel, two filmmakers who were producing a documentary about the song. When Warner/Chappell found out, they asked for $1,500 for the rights to use 'Happy Birthday to You' in the film. Instead of coughing up, Marya and Siegel argued that the song was in the public domain. Amazingly, in this David vs Goliath case, the court agreed with the little guys. Siegel explained:

The Hill sisters gave Summy Co the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics. We did exhaustive historical research and none of it showed that the publisher owned anything other than copyrights to four very specific piano arrangements.

However, now he's tasted legal blood, Siegel isn't going to stop there. Instead he's going to make Warner/Chappell themselves pay. He continued:

In the second part of the case, which hopefully we'll get to start very soon, we're going to be asking the court to order Warner to return all the money that's been collected from everyone who has had to pay a licensing fee or royalty to use the song... at least going back to 1988. If they've collected $2m a year over that period, that's a large sum of money.

For their part, Warner/Chappell simply stated they were reviewing the courts decision, adding:

We are looking at the court's lengthy opinion and considering our options.

If you're now planning on running out and performing a public performance of 'Happy Birthday to You,' you might want to take it easy. Although the lyrics were deemed to not be copyrighted, the melody still is. Mark Owen, of the law firm Taylor Wessing, told the BBC:

As elements of the song are still potentially within the maximum copyright term it may be the case that someone still owns some rights to it. There are also complex questions as to what the impact of this ruling may be on uses outside the US, so film-makers here should not now rush into using the song without considering the impact of this judgment carefully.

Despite this, it seems 'Happy Birthday to You' is about to become as ubiquitous and irritating on film as it is in real-life!

Source: BBC News


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