The song “Happy Birthday to You,” sung by so many people around the world that it is the most popular ditty on earth, should belong in the public domain, a production company making a documentary said Thursday as it filed a lawsuit in New York over the copyright to it.
The proposed class action by Good Morning to You Productions Corp. says in its federal court filing that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. has been collecting “Happy Birthday to You” licensing fees for years.
“More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to ‘Happy Birthday to You,”’ the lawsuit said.
Warner/Chappell claims exclusive copyright to what Guinness World Records has called the most famous song in the English language. It was first published in 1893 as “Good Morning to All,” a poem written by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill. The public began singing the words to “Happy Birthday to You” soon after.
The copyright claim stems from Warner/Chappell’s 1998 takeover of Birch Tree Ltd., a company that traces its roots to Clayton Summy, who in turn bought the rights to “Good Morning to All” from the Hill sisters in 1893.
The combination of the melody and lyrics for “Happy Birthday to You” first appeared in print in 1912. The Summy Company registered for a copyright in 1935, crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and R. R. Forman. Based on that, Warner/Chappell claims that their copyright is protected until 2030.
But the film company disputes them, saying the song is “dedicated to public use and in the public domain.”
Robert Brauneis, a professor at George Washington University Law School who published an article in 2009 about his longtime search for evidence of a copyright for either “Good Morning to All” or “Happy Birthday to You,” said he did not find any.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to count thousands of people and groups who’ve paid fees totaling more than $5 million as part of a class action and to make the song free to use.