The “Happy Birthday” Copyright: An Update

Last year we published a piece discussing the controversy behind the copyright claim to the song “Happy Birthday”, and included a brief rundown on some of the legal claims cited in the lawsuit challenging the copyright itself.  This week, a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, in an opinion finding that the publisher Warner/Chappell Music Inc. did not have a valid claim to the lyrics of “Happy Birthday”.  Though one could find news of the result of the ruling from numerous outlets, it was difficult to track down a copy of Judge King’s opinion so we could analyze the opinion ourselves.   Eventually, we were able to locate a copy thanks to the Los Angeles Times, and the very least we could do is share their upload or Rupa Marya v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. with our readers.

It is important to note the distinction between the melody and the lyrics, and the different copyrights that are attributed to each element; this point is discussed on page 10 of the opinion, with the court noting that at this point it is the copyright on the lyrics that are in dispute.  The song that we all know as “Happy Birthday” uses the same melody as a song that sisters Mildred and Patty Hill had previously written, “Good Morning to All”, with a new set of lyrics substituted in their place.  The opinion provides the timeline of how the two songs were intertwined, and the convoluted history is why determining the origins of the copyright has been so difficult.

The rest of the opinion goes into deeper detail about the facts specific to this case and the precise legal standards involved, and their relative importance to you may vary.  But the case should serve as a reminder to the public about the importance of owning the compositional copyright.  Every song has two copyrights–one copyright for the composition (what is written), and one copyright for the performance (what is heard)–and it is the compositional copyright that is the money-maker.  That is the copyright which generates the most royalties, including the mechanical royalty that kicks in for covers, as well as the royalties from public performances (live performance and digital transmission).  Now you can see why “Happy Birthday” could be a great source of revenue for a company.

The saga of “Happy Birthday” is not over just yet, as many loose ends remain.  However, it became much harder for someone to make a claim on the next public performance you hear of that song.

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