A federal judge has ruled Warner/Chappell Music does not own the copyright to “Happy Birthday”, one of the most famous songs ever created. It would be difficult to find people who have never heard of the popular song. Over the last century, the song has become a widely celebrated custom at birthday parties across the globe.
The ruling was the result of a lawsuit that had sought to move the song into the public domain. Warner/Chappell argued it had acquired the copyright of “Happy Birthday” when it bought it from Birchtree Ltd. in 1988, which entitled it to profit from licensing fees. Birchtree Ltd. is the successor company to Summy Co., who had allegedly purchased the copyright to the song in 1935. However, it is unclear whether this purchase ever happened, negating Warner/Chappell’s assurances it owned copyrights to the song.
Allegedly, Warner/Chappell has made millions from unlawful licensing fees. Royalties for “Happy Birthday” were collected from numerous productions, plays, television shows, movies and greeting cards. According to the lawsuit, “Happy Birthday” has created $2 million a year in revenue for Warner/Chappell. Class action lawsuits may follow with production companies, artists, independent filmmakers, restaurants and other parties seeking to recoup losses from unlawful licensing fees.
According to some, the song “Happy Birthday” was a creation of two kindergarten teachers in the late 19th century. The song was originally called “Good Morning to All”, which was later altered to become the most popular birthday song of all time. This case shows how important it is to win intellectual property lawsuits. Losing this case will cost Warner/Chappell millions in revenue and could force the company to pay millions more to thousands of people and organizations.
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