Thursday, October 1, 2015

Happy Birthday copyright claim invalid, judge rules

'Happy Birthday' song copyright claims are invalid, federal judge rules - LA Times - Christine Mai-Duc::

September 22, 2015 - "None of the companies that have collected royalties on the 'Happy Birthday' song for the past 80 years held a valid copyright claim to one of the most popular songs in history, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled on Tuesday.

"In a stunning reversal of decades of copyright claims, the judge ruled that Warner/Chappell never had the right to charge for the use of the 'Happy Birthday To You' song. Warner had been enforcing a copyright since 1988, when it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original disputed copyright.

"Judge George H. King ruled that a copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific piano arrangements of the music, not the actual song.

"'"Happy Birthday" is finally free after 80 years,' said Randall Newman, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit, which included a group of filmmakers who are producing a documentary about the song. 'Finally, the charade is over. It's unbelievable.'

"Until now, Warner has asked for royalties from anyone who wanted to sing or play 'Happy Birthday to You' – with the lyrics – as part of a profit-making enterprise. Royalties were most often collected from stage productions, television shows, movies or greeting cards. But even those who wanted to sing the song publicly as part of a business, say a restaurant owner giving out free birthday cake to patrons, technically had to pay to use the song....

"Two of the filmmaker plaintiffs paid $1,500 and $3,000 for the rights to use the song, their attorneys said. Filmmaker Steve James paid Warner $5,000 to use the song in his 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams.

"At a March hearing in the case, records show, a Warner/Chappell representative seated in the audience told the judge that the company collects as much as 'six figures' for certain single uses of the song. The song brings in about $2 million a year in royalties for Warner, according to some estimates....

"It is not entirely clear, the judge ruled, that the Hill sisters wrote the lyrics for 'Happy Birthday To You.' But either way, they never asserted a copyright claim for the lyrics, even though they sued for the rights to the original melody....

"Ultimately, the judge ruled that no evidence existed that the Summy Co. -- the original company to assert a copyright claim -- ever legally obtained the rights to the ... song from whomever wrote it.

"Tuesday's ruling means that the song is now considered a public work and is free for everyone to use without fear of having to pay for it, according to a statement from the plaintiffs' attorneys."

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