NEW YORK • A judge on Tuesday ruled that Warner/Chappell Music does not own a valid copyright to one of the world's most recognisable songs, Happy Birthday To You, a decision that brings the song into the public domain.
The highly anticipated ruling comes in a putative class-action lawsuit filed by several artists against Warner/Chappell, the music publishing arm of Warner Music Group, over the song in 2013 seeking a return of the millions of dollars in fees that the company has collected over the years.
To make his ruling, US District Judge George H. King had to delve into the song's long and complicated history. It began in 1893 with the publication of a melody called Good Morning To All in a kindergarten songbook, written by a Kentucky woman named Mildred Hill and her sister, Patty.
That melody eventually came to be sung with the Happy Birthday lyrics, which Patty also claimed to have written, court records said.
Warner's copyright originated with the Hill sisters' publisher, Clayton F. Summy Co, later known as Birch Tree and acquired by Warner in 1988. Summy obtained registrations to Happy Birthday in 1935.
"Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record," Mr King wrote in his 43-page opinion. "The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics," he added.
Warner could not be immediately reached for comment.
"Happy Birthday is finally free after 80 years," Mr Randall Newman, an attorney for the artists, told the Los Angeles Times.
The case garnered attention because many were not aware it was still under copyright. People who sing Happy Birthday in their homes or at private gatherings have never been at risk of a lawsuit. But the US Congress almost landed in trouble in the 1980s after singing the tune to then president Ronald Reagan.
When the song is used for commercial purposes, including movies, Warner has enforced its rights and takes in an estimated US$2 million (S$2.84 million) in royalties for such uses each year.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE