Can we sing Happy Birthday?

Published onSeptember 2015

Maybe you read or heard these last couple of weeks that lyrics from the Happy Birthday song were in the public domain. Well, that is not entirely true.

Actually what said US District Judge George H. King on 22 September 2015 is that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. could not claim copyright ownership over the lyrics from the famous song. You would agree this is a bit different.

It was not disputed that copyright protection for the Happy Birthday melody expired in 1949. But for a few years, Warner/Chappell tried and enforced copyright protection for the lyrics claiming that it was the latest assignee.

However Judge George H. King ruled differently.

The Happy Birthday song derives from a song called Good Morning originally created by the Hill sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, at the end of the Nineteenth century. According to Judge George H. King the mere fact that the Hill sisters, or Patty Hill alone, were/was the author of the lyrics was not established. Even if there were some pieces of evidence showing that Patty Hill had claimed to be the author of the lyrics on one occasion or so, there was more evidence showing that the Hill sisters never “did anything with their common law rights in the lyrics”. They never authorized “any publication of the lyrics”, they never tried “to obtain federal copyright protection”, they never took “legal action to prevent the use of the lyrics by others”. In the same time however they did asserted their rights to the Good Morning/Happy Birthday melody.

In addition, Judge George H. King found no evidence that the Hill sisters ever assigned their rights to the lyrics to Summy Company, later to be bought over by Warner/Chappell. Documents only showed transfer of rights as regards the original melody and piano arrangements.

Technically, it does not mean that the lyrics are in the public domain. It only means that Warner/Chappell does not own a valid copyright in them. And it means that we cannot be sure that the Hill sisters were the true authors of the lyrics as well.

However in practice, we believe that chances are very low that anyone could seriously claim today either being the real author of the lyrics (or their assignee) or that said lyrics are still protected by copyright.

That is why, three years after starting our firm, we dare to sing:

Happy birthday to us

Happy birthday to us

Happy birthday dear INSCRIPTA

Happy birthday to us

And many thanks to everyone who supported us!

© INSCRIPTA

See what happened next.