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'Happy Birthday To You' Is Now Free

Intellectual Property Expert Reacts To Birthday Song Ruling


Since 2013 a US legal case had been pending regarding the status of copyrights in the popular song, ‘Happy Birthday To You.’ Yesterday a US judge ruled that the song is no longer protected by copyright in the US. 

Warner Chappell Music acquired the copyright to the popular song over three decades ago and has made millions in royalties since, for example by charging a licence fee every time the song was used in a film, television programme, advert or public performance. 

The US federal judge ruled that the original copyright granted was only given for specific arrangements of the music, not the song itself, highlighting that there was no copyright over the lyrics in the song. 

Georgie Collins, Irwin Mitchell’s intellectual property specialist commented on the ruling;

Expert Opinion
“A US Judge has ruled that the song, 'Happy Birthday to you’, is in the public domain and is not protected by copyright. The song was written by two sisters in 1883, a registration for copyright was filed in the US in 1935. The copyright was later acquired by Warner Chappell Music in 1988 who has been enforcing and charging for the use of the song ever since.

“The Judge ruled that the copyright registration related to the specific arrangement of the song and not the tune itself, as a result the rights to the lyrics were never acquired.

“If Warner Chappell had succeeded in acquiring the rights to 'Happy Birthday to you’, the song would have been restricted by copyright in the US until 2030 and in the EU until 31 December 2016.

“Lawyers for the plaintiffs have said that they will now seek to pursue a class-action in an effort to recoup the millions of dollars Warner Chappell has collected in royalties on the tune since "at least" 1988, but could also seek the repayment royalties that have been collected all the way back to 1935. It is not yet clear what these sums are but they are likely to be significant. Meanwhile confirmation is awaited from Warner Chappell as to whether it will appeal.

“This is a ruling specific to the US, there are complex issues as to how this will affect the position outside of the US, so for now, the ruling should not be used as affording carte blanche use outside of the US.”
Georgie Collins, Partner

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