A federal judge has ruled that the music publishing company that has been collecting royalties for the song 'Happy Birthday to You' for decades does not hold a valid copyright to the popular celebratory song.
U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled that the copyright originally filed by the Clayton F. Summy Co. in 1935 granted rights only to the melody and specific arrangements of the tune but not to the actual song itself, as Summy never acquired the rights to the song's lyrics. Warner/Chappell Music has been enforcing the copyright claim since it bought Summy's successor, the Birch Tree Group, in 1988.
In a settlement filed with courts on Monday, music publisher Warner/Chappell agreed to pay $14 million to end the lawsuit challenging its right to 'Happy Birthday to You'. Next month, King will get to approve the settlement, making the song available to the public.
People who sing 'Happy Birthday to You' in their homes or at private gatherings have typically never been at risk of a lawsuit. But when the song was used for commercial purposes, such as in films, Warner demanded payment and took in an estimated $2 million in royalties for such uses each year. So the next step in the case will be to determine if Warner/Chappell must return money it has collected through the years for licensing the song.