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'Happy Birthday' Lawsuit Seeks To Free Up Copyrighted Song

By Clyde Hughes   |   Friday, 14 Jun 2013 08:23 AM

The song "Happy Birthday to You" has proven very profitable for one music company, but a current federal lawsuit is trying to make sure that the popular song is official part of the public domain.

Unbeknownst to many who have sung "Happy Birthday to You" to their children, relatives or friends, Warner/Chappel Music Inc., the music publishing arm of Warner Music Group, claims it owns the copyright to the song, according to Reuters. The lawsuit, filed Thursday, states the song, around since the 1800s, should be declared in the public domain.

Good Morning To You Productions Corp. of New York is the plaintiff in the suit, Reuters said. The company is making a documentary about the song. The company said it was forced to pay a $1,500 licensing fee in March to use the song, Reuters said.

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The lawsuit claims that Warner/Chappel has collected $2 million in licensing fees for the song. The lawsuit wants the company to return the licensing fees, according to Reuters.

"More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of 'Happy Birthday to You' is set was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to 'Happy Birthday to You,' " Reuters said the lawsuit stated.

Reuters said a representative of Warner/Chappell was not immediately available to comment on the lawsuit.

According to the Associated Press, Good Morning To You Productions said the song's original copyright expired in 1921. It states other attempts to copyright the melody of the song, which came from the song "Good Morning to All," have either expired or been forfeited. (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/happy-birthday-you-copyright-suit-filed-ny)

The lawsuit claims that Warner/Chappell has copyright only to the piano arrangements published in 1935, not to the melody or lyrics, said the Associated Press.

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Robert Brauneis, a professor at George Washington University Law School, told Reuters he could not find a copyright for the combination of the "Good Morning to All" melody and "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics.

"Happy Birthday to You" and its lyrics date back to the late 1800s when sisters Mildred Hill and Patty Smith Hill put the words and melody together for what was intended to be a classroom greeting. (http://musiced.about.com/od/historyofmusic/a/happybirthday.htm)

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