A federal judge has tossed out copyright claims on one of the world’s most widely sung ditties: “Happy Birthday to You.”
That means Warner/Chappell Music, a division of Warner Music Group, does not have the right to charge licensing fees for use of the song’s lyrics in productions like plays, TV shows and movies.
A publisher, Clayton S. Summy, first claimed rights to the lyrics in 1935, and Warner/Chappell believed it eventually acquired them.
Judge George H. King said neither was the case.
“The court ruled that copyright in ‘Happy Birthday to You’ was never transferred to Clayton S. Summy, the predecessor of Warner/Chappell, and therefore that Warner/Chappell, which has been licensing this song for many years now, doesn’t have copyright in that song,” said law professor Robert Brauneis of George Washington University, an expert on the song’s copyright issues. Brauneis said he served as an unpaid consultant to plaintiffs in the case.
Brauneis estimates Warner has been pulling in about $2 million a year in royalties from the song. It remains to be seen whether the plaintiffs will succeed in recouping some of that money through a class action lawsuit.
Law professor Jane Ginsburg at Columbia University says the case could embolden other copyright challengers, especially if the plaintiffs succeed in clawing back fees.
“It raises the question whether there’s other works whose copyrights are similarly dubious or whose ownership of rights are similarly dubious,” she says.
Ginsburg points to a case involving a writer, Leslie Klinger, who was publishing stories based on the Sherlock Holmes character. Klinger sued the estate of estate of Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle over licensing fees charged, saying they were unnecessary because the copyrights of the works in question had expired. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the Klinger’s favor and the U.S. Supreme Court left the ruling intact.
“The question that arises is if the Conan Doyle estate, like Warner, had been going around demanding unjustified license fees for the use of the character,” said Ginsburg. “Might that also give rise to a similar claim on the part of somebody who paid a fee that perhaps she should not have paid?”
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