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Judge rules copyright for 'Happy Birthday' invalid

The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed by several artists against Warner/Chappell, seeking a return of fees

The music publishing company that has been collecting royalties on the song "Happy Birthday To You" for years does not hold a valid copyright on the lyrics to the tune, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge George H. King determined the song's original copyright, obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co. from the song's writers, only covered specific piano arrangements of the song and not its lyrics. The basic tune of the song, derived from another popular children's song, "Good Morning to All," has long been in the public domain.

“That “Happy Birthday” — one of the most sung songs in the world — was still under copyright protection at all comes as a surprise to many people,” noted Variety, although People who sing it in their homes or at private gatherings have typically never been at risk of a lawsuit.

The ruling brings the song into the public domain. It also raises the prospect that royalties will no longer be collected from public performances of the song in movies, TV shows and other productions, according to Variety, which pointed out that “by some estimates, the publisher collected up to $2 million a year in royalties from the song.” According to Guinness World Records, the song’s lyrics are the most famous in the English language. The song is also sung in countless other languages around the world.

King's decision comes in a lawsuit filed two years ago by Good Morning To You Productions Corp., which is working on a documentary film tentatively titled "Happy Birthday." The company challenged the copyright now held by Warner/Chappell Music Inc., arguing that the song should be "dedicated to public use and in the public domain."

In his ruling King went into great detail about the history of "Happy Birthday To You," starting in 1893 with a manuscript for sheet music that included the song “Good Morning to All,” which was written by Mildred J. Hill and her sister, Patty Smith Hill. The song was first published in 1893 in “Song Stories for Kindergarten,” and later the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” were adapted to the song’s melody.

He found that the sisters never asserted their rights to the lyrics and that Summy Co. acquired the rights to the melody and piano arrangements based on the melody.

Warner Chappell bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Summy, in 1998, according to Variety.

The lawsuit also asked for monetary damages and restitution of more than $5 million in licensing fees it said in 2013 that Warner/Chappell had collected from thousands of people and groups who've paid to use the song over the years.

Marshall Lamm, a spokesman for one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said that issue would be determined later.

"We are looking at the court's lengthy opinion and considering our options," Warner/Chappell said in a statement following Tuesday's ruling.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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