Historic Copyright Ruling on “Happy Birthday”

The Firm obtained a landmark copyright victory in this historic class action: a judicial declaration that the most popular song of all time, Happy Birthday to You, is in the public domain.  The plaintiffs alleged that Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., which claimed to own the copyright, did not own a valid copyright.  View a copy of the Fourth Amended Consolidated Complaint. Based on the Firm’s exhaustive investigation, on September 22, 2015, Chief Judge George King of the Federal District Court in Los Angeles granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs, finding that Warner/Chappell never owned any rights to the song. View a copy of Judge King’s summary judgment decision here.

Two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, wrote and composed a children’s song called Good Morning to All, which was published in a songbook for Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.  Patty Hill said she later wrote the famous Happy Birthday lyrics as an adaptation of that earlier work.  The two songs share a common melody, but have different words.  The copyright to the melody expired by 1949.  The plaintiffs proved that Warner/Chappell never acquired any rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics.

Following Judge King’s historic summary judgment ruling, the parties and two intervenors, the Association for Childhood Education International and the Hill Foundation, Inc. (which claimed an interest in the copyright), reached an agreement to settle the litigation. Under the settlement, the Court declared the song to be in the public domain, ending more than eighty years of uncertainty regarding the disputed copyright. In addition, Warner/Chappell and the intervenors agreed to forego collecting any more fees for use of the song. Finally, Warner/Chappell agreed to pay $14 million to thousands of people who paid millions of dollars to it and its predecessors to use the song since 1949. View a copy of the Settlement Agreement here.

On June 30, 2016, Judge King approved the settlement, ending the most famous copyright dispute over the most infamous copyright claim of all time. View a copy of the Final Order and Judgment here.

The Firm received worldwide acclaim for its groundbreaking work in this case. Among many accolades, Billboard Magazine named the case its Top Landmark Legal Dispute of 2015, and Senior Partner Mark Rifkin was named a Trailblazer in Intellectual Property by the National Law Journal in 2016.

One of the Firm’s clients, filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, has produced an award winning short documentary on the song and the historic effort to give it back to the public, titled “Saving Happy Birthday.”

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