Saga of a song: Happy Birthday to You

A chain of disputes over rights to the Happy Birthday song–a controversy now stretching over more than 80 years–recently enjoyed a revival with a federal lawsuit being heard in California. It was brought by Jenn Nelson, a video producer in New York who has been assembling a documentary about the saga. A key, unresolved issue throughout long controversy has been lack of a clearly established author of the song.

Disputes: Ms. Nelson reluctantly paid a subsidiary of Warner/Chappell Music of Los Angeles, who claim to own interest in a copyright, a royalty of $1,500–so that her video could use the song without wrangling over an infringement lawsuit. After a slow burn, she found a New York lawyer, Randall S. Newman, who was willing to challenge the copyright claim. Mr. Newman filed suit in New York on June 13, 2013, joined by Mark C. Rifkin of Wolf, Haldenstein, Adler, Freeman and Herz. The venue proved questionable, and a new complaint was filed in California later that month.

Circumstances of the Happy Birthday song have been contentious. Disputes began in 1934 with a charge against producer Sam Harris and composer Irving Berlin, who included the song in a Broadway musical without an agreement. Robert Brauneis, a professor at George Washington University Law School, explored origins of the song and legal issues about it in a 92-page journal article published in 2009, plus supplements available from the law school.

Origins: While working at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School in the early 1890s, Mildred Jane Hill and Patty Smith Hill composed a song with the same melody and different lyrics. Mildred Hill was a professional pianist and organist who taught at the school. Her sister Patty Hill had trained as a teacher at the school and then become principal. A pioneer in early childhood education, she later became a professor at Columbia University. The sisters collaborated on songs to appeal to and be easily learned by young children.

In 1893, the two sisters submitted a manuscript for publication to the Clayton F. Summy Co., then at 220 Wabash Ave. in Chicago. Mr. Summy published the work in 1893, 1894 and 1896 as editions of Song Stories for the Kindergarten. The first song on the first page of music was titled Good-Morning to All. It had the melody of the Happy Birthday song, but the lyrics said “good morning” instead of “happy birthday.”

Subsequently, the Clayton F. Summy Co. republished Good-Morning to All in 1899 as part of Song Stories for the Sunday School and in 1907 as a free-standing composition. In each case of publication, according the original complaint in the recent lawsuit, Mr. Summy or the Summy company applied for copyright registration and asserted that Mr. Summy or the company was “proprietor” of the work. No Summy publication included the “happy birthday” lyrics, only the “good morning” lyrics.

Changes and infringement: The trail diverged in 1912, after a large, Chicago-area piano manufacturer, The Cable Company, published and began to sell The Beginners’ Book of Songs. For a song titled Good-Morning to You, alternatives to “good morning” were shown in subtitles as “good bye” and “happy birthday.” Key, melody, main lyrics and piano arrangement were the same as Good-Morning to All in Song Stories for the Kindergarten from the Clayton F. Summy Co., still under copyright.

The Beginners’ Book of Songs, cover

BeginnersBookOfSongs1912CableCover
Source: The Cable Company, Chicago, IL, 1912

As published in The Beginners’ Book of Songs, no authorship, permission or copyright was cited for Good-Morning to You. That looks like infringement. However, this 1912 publication also introduced into commercial circulation the “happy birthday” lyrics in combination with the “good morning” melody.

Any later attempt to claim original authorship of the “happy birthday” lyrics, alone or in combination with the “good morning” melody, could suggest plagiarism. So far as can be seen in records from the recent lawsuit, neither Mildred Hill nor Patty Hill claimed authorship or left unpublished manuscripts for the “happy birthday” lyrics or for their combination with the “good morning” melody.

According to Prof. Brauneis and as recited in the original complaint for the recent lawsuit, the Clayton F. Summy Co. did not seek copyright extension for the publication of the Good-Morning to All song occurring in 1893. Later publications notwithstanding, melody and lyrics of that song could have entered the public domain when their 1893 copyright term ended in 1921 without renewal action by the “proprietor,” Clayton F. Summy or the Summy company.

From 1922 to 1927, The Cable Company published the fourth to sixteenth editions of The Everyday Song Book. Song 16 in those editions was titled Good Morning and Birthday Song. It has the melody of Good-Morning to All, transcribed from G to A-flat, with no piano arrangement and with three sets of lyrics: two with “good morning” and one with “happy birthday.” No authorship or copyright was cited. However, a note below the title said, “Special permission through courtesy of the Clayton F. Summy Co.”

Lawsuits and arguments: That situation is now presented to a federal court in the Central District of California. Judge George H. King, the chief judge of the district, has something of a mess to clear, mainly because of lapse of time but also because of several actions during the previous 81 years to prosecute a claimed but vaguely justified copyright.

Supposed rights to the Happy Birthday song may never have been enforceable. No authorship for the “happy birthday” lyrics or for their combination with the “good morning” melody appears to have been claimed at or before publication in 1912. Without an author, there is no copyright interest. [See note, below.] However, arguments in the recent case became tangled–tending to obscure some elements of copyrights.

Judge King does not have a particularly strong record when dealing with intellectual property. In Alfred Mann Foundation v. Cochlear, a patent lawsuit beginning as Central California case no. 07-cv-8108, he was overruled by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in 2010 [case no. 2009-1447], which found faulty justification from Judge King for holding that plaintiffs in the district court case lacked standing to sue.

The Clayton F. Summy Co. was sold in 1930, into what became a succession of organizations. When lawsuits began in the mid-1930s, the Happy Birthday song had been published several times before, essentially in the form it is currently performed, without claims of authorship or copyright and without prior challenges for infringement. By at least 1922 it was a known work, published in full and combining the “happy birthday” lyrics with the “good morning” melody.

Aggressive copyright prosecutions look to have begun with efforts by Jessica Hill, youngest sister of Mildred and Patty Hill, after Mildred Hill died in 1916 and Jessica Hill, who played no role in creation of their songbook, inherited a potential interest in the songs. In a brief filed July 28, 2015, Warner/Chappell argued that Jessica Hill renewed the copyright to the songbook in 1921.

In an appendix to his journal article, Prof. Brauneis argued that, as a successor in interest, Jessica Hill was entitled to obtain and hold a renewal of copyright and would have held it in trust for other family members. As renewed in 1921, the 1893 copyright for Song Stories for the Kindergarten would have expired in 1949, and the enforceable copyright to the Happy Birthday melody would have expired with it.

After 1921, Mr. Summy and the original Clayton F. Summy Co. would no longer have been the “proprietors” of copyright for Good Morning to All. Instead, Jessica Hill would have become “proprietor.” According to that logic, the Happy Birthday melody, as published by The Cable Company in 1922 and later, would have been yet another pirate edition. Its “permission” was bogus. The “happy birthday” lyrics are a different story.

Neither the 1893 songbook nor later editions of it contained the “happy birthday” lyrics, alone or in combination with the “good morning” melody. So far, briefs for Warner/Chappell have apparently failed to acknowledge lack of documented authorship and copyright coverage for the “happy birthday” lyrics, alone or in combination with the “good morning” melody, between at least 1893 and 1933.

In the 1930s, successor management of the Clayton F. Summy Co. filed for copyrights involving the Happy Birthday song. However, they were for similar works with varying piano arrangements and additional lyrics. They did not address issues arising from combining the “happy birthday” lyrics with the “good morning” melody. At those times and since, there have been allegations of copyright infringement. So far, disputes over the Happy Birthday song have been settled privately, leaving legal issues of copyright unadjudicated.

Potential outcomes: It is possible Judge King will find there have been no enforceable rights to the “happy birthday” lyrics or their combination of with the “good morning” melody, because there has been no clear evidence of authorship for the lyrics or the combination. It is also possible the judge will find potential rights connected with the melody of the Happy Birthday song were abandoned or had expired by 1922 or by 1950, either through acts or through neglect.

If the judge somehow reaches the far side of those legal chasms, he will need to decide whether the 1930s copyright filings reflect rights of original authorship to the combination of the “happy birthday” lyrics with the “good morning” melody or whether instead they concern only rights to derivative works with different piano arrangements and additional lyrics. If inclined toward finding original authorship, the judge would also need to consider potential plagiarism in the filings.

The money involved makes at least a trip to the Court of Appeals and a try at the Supreme Court likely, no matter what Judge King finds. However, pitfalls ahead for Warner/Chappell Music suggest a fair chance that in a few years the Happy Birthday song may be recognized as public-domain. Warner/Chappell Music might have to disgorge years of unearned royalties, depending on findings of culpability.

Ms. Nelson’s lawsuit already has class action recognition. It seeks to restrict copyrights currently claimed for the Happy Birthday song from covering more than specific piano arrangements and additional lyrics, and in addition it seeks injunctive relief, royalty reimbursements with interest and costs. A victory by the plaintiffs would likely draw attention to other older copyright claims, including Sherlock Holmes stories, already public-domain in the UK.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 8, 2015


Note: “Without an author, there is no copyright interest.” Authorship and originality have been ingredients of copyrights since they were authorized by the U.S. Constitution in Article 1, Section 8. In Section 4, the Copyright Act of 1909 provided, “works for which copyright may be secured under this act shall include all the writings of an author.” Section 102 of the Copyright Act of 1976 narrowed the range somewhat, saying, “copyright protection subsists in original works of authorship.” A requirement of originality, expressed in case law, was made explicit under that statute.

Susanna Kim, Why Happy Birthday to You should be copyright-free, lawyers say, ABC News, July 29, 2015

Zachary Crockett, Who owns the copyright to Happy Birthday?, Priceonomics, April 14, 2015

“Until there is a work of authorship, there is no copyright interest,” U.S. Copyright Office, 2014

Good Morning to You Productions Corp., et al., v. Warner Chappell Music, Inc., et al., case 2:13-cv-4460 in the Central District of California (Los Angeles), filed June 20, 2013
(originally filed as Rupa Marya v. Warner Chappell Music, Inc., first filed as case 1:13-cv-4040 in the Southern District of New York)

Class-action complaint, case 1:13-cv-4040 in the Southern District of New York, filed June 13, 2013

Robert Brauneis, Copyright and the world’s most popular song, Journal of the Copyright Society of the U.S.A. 59:335-426, 2009
Links to text and supplements, George Washington University
Formatted text of the article, George Washington University

Jason Mazzone, Copyfraud, New York University Law Review 81(3):1026-1100, 2006

Russ Versteeg, Defining “author” for purposes of copyright, American University Law Review 45(5):1323-1366, 1996

First Publications v. Rural Telephone Service Company, U.S. Supreme Court, case no. 89-1909, 499 U.S. 340, 1991

Geraldine Fabrikant, Sound of a $25 million deal: ‘Happy Birthday’ to Warner, New York Times, December 20, 1988

The Cable Co. (Chicago, IL), Everyday Song Book, 101 Best Songs and 101 Famous Poems (advertisement), Normal Instructor and Primary Plans 31(4):4, F.A. Owen Publishing Co. (Dansville, NY), February, 1922

Clayton Frick Summy, in John W. Leonard, ed., The Book of Chicagoans, A.N. Marquis & Company, Chicago, 1905, p. 558

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>