For 80 years, Warner/Chappell Music Inc. has collected millions in licensing fees based on its claimed right to the lyrics of “Happy Birthday to You.” However, the federal District Court recently ruled that Warner/Chappell never owned a valid copyright for the song. The plaintiffs, a group of filmmakers and artists, challenged Warner/Chappell’s copyright claim in 2013 after they had paid the company licensing fees in order to use the song. Their successful motion for summary judgment brought an end to Warner/Chappell’s $2 million annual licensing business.
The Copyright Act allows individuals who create artistic works an exclusive right to those works for a certain period of time. In 1893, Mildred and Patty Hill wrote the song “Good Morning to All,” whose original melody was rearranged to create “Happy Birthday to You.” Subsequently, in 1935, the Clayton F. Summy Company registered the copyrights. However, the court concluded these registered copyrights only included the melody, not the lyrics. Therefore, when Warner/Chappell acquired the rights from Summy in 1988, Summy had been asserting rights to the whole song and collecting royalties without a valid copyright.
The court found that Warner/Chappell is not the rightful owner of the rights to the lyrics of “Happy Birthday To You.” Once the court decided there was insufficient evidence to prove Warner/Chappell owned the copyright in the lyrics, the court was unable to resolve the question of who actually does own the copyright in those lyrics. Thus, while it is clear Warner/Chappell does not own the copyright, it is unclear who does.
This ruling illustrates an ongoing challenge in the field of copyright law. The issue arises when a work’s copyright lasts so long that it can be very difficult to find the author and the public consequently is unaware of who to pay in order to use the work legally. The 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act extended the copyright protection term to a range from 95 to 120 years. This extension increased the importance of due diligence when it comes to properly accounting for the chain of title of a copyrighted work. The chain of title seeks to protect all original works by establishing that there is appropriate documentation in relation to rights assigned or licensed by the work’s creator. Successfully establishing “chain of title” requires a clean paper trail from the current owner back to the original owner of the copyrighted work. This ruling therefore cautions attorneys to carefully check over a work’s chain of title before clearing the work for another’s use.
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By: Banu Naraghi, ’16