In a Hollywood ending, the US District Court for the Central District of California ruled that Warner/Chappell Music Inc., which has collected millions for licensing rights to “Happy Birthday to You,” never owned a valid copyright on the words of the song. Warner did not contend it owned the copyright in the music itself.
Warner claimed that it acquired the song rights via Summy Co., a company it bought in 1988.
The court found that Summy only owned the rights to the tune, which has been in the public domain for some time.
The court found that there was no evidence Summy ever owned the copyright to the familiar words.
The judge’s detailed 43-page ruling explores the problems in the chain of title for the song, from its purported creators in the 19th century to Warner in the 21st.
The court did not rule that the song lyrics are in the public domain, however. It is possible that a rightful claimant to the copyright in the words may emerge.
Until an owner appears, the song is what is called an “orphan work.” That means that it is still theoretically protected by copyright but ownership is unknown.
The case was filed as a class action on behalf of all those who paid licensing fees to Warner for the right to use the song. The plaintiffs may now proceed to seek repayment of those fees on behalf of the class.
Given the amount of money at stake, Warner is expected to appeal the case to the 9th Circuit and perhaps all the way to the US Supreme Court.
The case is Good Morning to You Productions Corp. et al v. Warner Chappell Music Inc. et al. We previously discussed it in this blog.
The case shows the importance — and sometimes the difficulty — of clearing a chain of title when using works protected by third party copyrights.
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Photo Attribution: “Happy Birthday!” by Vikas Bhardwaj – Flickr: Happy Birthday!. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.