THE Warner/Chappell music group, part of the enormous Warner Entertainment empire was told by an American federal judge on Tuesday September 22 that it does not have the rights to collect royalties for the use of the words of the song ‘Happy Birthday to you’.
In court in Los Angeles, Judge George King ruled that the copyright originally filed by the Clayton F Summy Co in 1935 applied to a specific arrangement of the song, not the tune itself and therefore, Warner/Chappell which acquired the ‘copyright’ in 1988 was not entitled to any royalty payments when the words were used.
Naturally, the company was unable to stop individuals from singing the song at birthday parties but it had been collecting up to $2 million (€1.8 million) a year from companies who used the song in film, television, advertisement or public performance.
It all came to a head when a pair of film producers making a film about the song were sent a bill for $1,500 (€1,350) to cover copyright and they argued that it was in the public domain. Clearly this irritated the two sufficiently for them to take the matter to court for a formal judgement and they, along with other plaintiffs, won!
The basis of the ruling was that the writers, two sisters Parry and Mildred Hill, who initially wrote ‘Good morning to all’ in 1883 ‘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.’
According to one of the lawyers who had been appointed to argue the case against Warner/Chappell, the next step will be to ask ‘the court to order Warner to return all the money that’s been collected from everyone who has had to pay a licensing fee or royalty to use the song, at least going back to 1988.’
After the ruling was announced, Warner/Chappell said: ‘We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.’