Filmmaker sues to use Happy Birthday without payment

2010 academic article suggests copyright expired no later than 1963

A film company called Good Morning to You Productions Corp. filed a class action lawsuit in a U.S. federal court last week against against Warner/Chapell, a subsidiary of music giant Warner, demanding the right to use Happy Birthday To You, the most recognizable song in the English language, without paying for it.

Warner-Chappell charges thousands each time the melody is sung in a film or TV show, which explains why we often hear For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow in movies, despite the fact that no one sings that in real life.

Much of the suit is based on a 2010 paper from George Washington University law professor Robert Brauneis, which says any copyright would have expired in 1963 at the latest.  He says the tune was written by kindergarten teacher sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893 and titled  “Good Morning To All.” It had completely different lyrics from “Happy Birthday To You.” The copyright was registered by Clayton F. Summy and Jessica Hill (the musical sisters’ sister) in 1935, but only for a certain piano arrangement.

Warner/Chapell claims the copyright because it bought the Clayton F. Summy Company in 1998.

Who knows where this will go? As the suit points out, “No court has ever adjudicated the validity or scope of the defendant’s claimed interest in Happy Birthday to You, nor in the song’s melody or lyrics, which are themselves independent works.”

Warner maintains that it plans to charge royalties until 2030.

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