Which Popular Song Have We Been Singing Illegally?
Believe it or not, rights to the "Happy Birthday" song have belonged to a publishing company, allowing them to collect royalties and take legal action against anyone using the song without permission - until now.
U.S. District Judge George H. King determined the song's original copyright, obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co. from the song's writers, only protected specific piano arrangements of the song, but not its lyrics. In fact, the song was actually derived from another popular song - "Good Morning to All" - which has already been in the public domain for a long time.
The decision comes in a lawsuit filed 2 years ago by a production company who challenged the copyright, which is now held by Warner/Chapell Music Inc., arguing that the song should be in the public domain.
In his 43-page ruling, King concluded that, "Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the 'Happy Birthday' lyrics, defendants, as Summy Co.'s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics."
The lawsuit also asked for monetary damages and restitution of more than $5 million. For now, Warner/Chappell has dodged a bullet - as Marshall Lamm, a spokesman for one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said that issue will be determined at another time.
Warner/Chappell said it hasn't tried to collect royalties from "just anyone" singing the song - only from those who acquire a license for commercial use.