All the ‘Happy Birthday’ Song Copyright Claims Were Invalid, Federal Judge Rules

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A 1922 copy of "The Everyday Song Book," containing lyrics to "Happy Birthday." (Credit: Christine Mai-Duc / Los Angeles Times)

None of the companies that have collected royalties on the “Happy Birthday” song for the past 80 years held a valid copyright claim to one of the most popular songs in history, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled on Tuesday.

In a stunning reversal of decades of copyright claims, the judge ruled that Warner/Chappell never had the right to charge for the use of the “Happy Birthday To You” song. Warner had been enforcing a copyright since 1988, when it paid $15 million to buy Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original disputed copyright.

Judge George H. King ruled that a copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific piano arrangements of the music, not the actual song.

“‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” said Randall Newman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, which included a group of filmmakers who are producing a documentary about the song. “Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.”

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