Happy Birthday to Copyright

We’ve all heard the tune Happy Birthday at least once a year since we were born. It’s one of the few songs everyone knows by heart. However, you may not know that until last year the song was under strict copyright protection.

The rights were owned by the corporate giant Warner Music Group. How the group got the rights is a very interesting tale.

The famous tune was first penned in 1893 by two sisters that were school teachers in Kentucky, Mildred and Patty Hill. They first wrote a song call Good Morning to All, which was later adapted by Patty to Happy Birthday to You.

The rights to the song traded hands over the years.

The sisters published the song with Clayton F. Summy Co, which became Birch Tree, which was eventually bought by Warner in 1988.

When the sisters first published with Summy, the company got the rights in 1935. When Warner bought Birch Tree (formerly Summy) it also bought the rights to Happy Birthday. Since then Warner has collected around $2 million a year in royalties.

This money didn’t come from families singing it at Chuck E. Cheese’s, it came from movies and TV shows singing on screen.  

In 2013, several artists took Warner to court, trying to recover money they had to pay to use the rights of the song. U.S. District Judge George H. King was appointed to the case. Here’s what he had to say in his ruling.

“Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record. The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics.”

King’s ruling not only stripped Warner of the rights, but it also put the song into public domain. This means the song can be used by anyone, at anytime, for any purpose.

This case is a great example of how powerful copyright can be. It can give exclusive rights to one company for arguably one of the most popular songs in the world. Copyright can be the difference between profit and plagiarism. Is your company protected by copyright?  

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