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Does Someone Own The Happy Birthday Song?

By John Hipskind on September 24, 2015

Copyright, trademark, and patent infringement cases are often very complicated and can take years to resolve.  These cases can involve complex issues requiring hours upon hours of expert testimony, such as the Apple Inc. v. Samsun Electronics Co., Ltd., cases that have been ongoing for over five years.

There is however one recent copyright case that, figuratively and literally, takes the cake.  For years, Warner/Chappell Music has claimed to own the copyright to the oldest, most famous, and most well known song in the English language, Happy Birthday.  In fact, Warner/Chappel has been allegedly making millions of dollars by charging people for the use of the song in movies and television.  Don’t worry, you were still safe to sing this song to your family and friends, Warner/Chappell never sought fees, nor likely could they have, from individuals signing the song at gatherings.

However, recently, a few filmmakers became curious as to the origin of this famous tune and decided to make a documentary detailing its history.  As you might expect, the documentary wanted to play the Happy Birthday song during the film, it was after all a film about the song’s history and origins.  Warner/Chappell demanded that the filmmakers pay $1,500 for the use of the song.  The filmmakers refused to pay the fee and, instead, brought suit to alleging that Warner/Chappell’s alleged copyright over Happy Birthday was invalid and, thus, it should be prevented from charging and/or collecting fees for the use of Happy Birthday.  Instead, the filmmakers claimed that Happy Birthday is actually in the public domain and, hence, is not owned by Warner/Chappell or any other entity and, therefore, can be used freely by anyone.  The filmmakers are also seeking to force Warner/Chappell to return all of the money it has collected in fees over the years claiming that it owns the copyright to Happy Birthday, which would require Warner/Chappell to return millions and millions of dollars it has collected over the years.

Just this week, U.S. District Judge George King made his first major ruling in this case in favor of the filmmakers finding that Warner/Chappell “never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics,” and thus, are unable to collect or enforce fees for the song’s use from anyone.  This ruling is a major blow to Warner/Chappell’s claims and could cause them to have to return the fees they have previously collected.  Stay tuned for more updates regarding this case and if you or a loved one have legal questions or need legal help, feel free to contact one of our experienced attorneys at Hipskind & McAninch, LLC, at 618.641.9189 (IL) | 314.312.2930 (MO) | info@hm-attorneys.co.

Authored By: Brady M. McAninch

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