Entertainment Law

Wishing everyone a “royalty-free” Happy Birthday

On 22 September 2015, Chief US District Court Judge George H. King ruled that the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” are no longer protected by copyright, much to the dismay of Warner/Chappell Music.

Let’s all join together in a celebratory chorus without the fear of having to pay royalties!

The ruling came as a triumph for filmmaker Jennifer Nelson who was making a claim against Warner/Chappell suggesting that the lyrics to the song were indeed in the public domain.   Her action was spurred on by the fact that she wanted to make a movie about the historical origin of the song and found she would be up for $1500 in licencing fees to feature it in her film.

The origins of the song are based on an 1893 manuscript for sheet music for the song “Good Morning to All” by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill. The lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” were later adapted to the melody of “Good Morning to You” which was copyrighted by the sisters publisher.  Warner/Chappell acquired the publishing company and the rights to the song in the 1980s.

Ms Nelson and her co-plaintiffs argued that the lyrics may have been written by someone else, the common law copyrights in the lyrics were lost due to general publication or abandonment before the lyrics were published on the basis that a songbook from 1922 includes the song which predates the 1935 copyright and the rights in the lyrics were never transferred to Summy Co. (the Hill sister’s publisher).


Warner/Chappell asserted that the Hill sisters authored the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” around the turn of the last century, held onto the common law rights for several decades and then transferred them to Summy Co. which published and registered them for a federal copyright in 1935.

His Honour ruled that “because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics, Defendants [Warner/Chappell], as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics”. 


Warner/Chappell can say goodbye to the purported annual $2Million in royalties they collect from the licencing of the song for its use in film, television, public performances or advertisements. Undoubtedly, this issue will be a watch this space as to what grounds Warner/Chappell instigate their appeal proceedings. 

But for now, let’s happily sing it without the fear of breaching copyright.