Federal judge George H. King ruled earlier this week that Warner/Chappell, the music company that’s owned the rights to the happy birthday song since 1988, never really owned the rights to begin with.
The melody we all associate with “Happy Birthday to You” was originally created by Kentucky sisters Mildred and Patty Hill in 1893. The title for their composition was “Good Morning to All,” a song written as a sort of sing-a-long for Patty’s kindergarten students, with the lyrics:
“Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning dear children / Good morning to all.”
The Hill sisters assigned the rights to their song to The Clayton F. Summy Co. and it was officially copyrighted in 1935. “Good Morning to All” has long been in the public domain, but when Warner/Chappell took over in 1988, the company began charging hefty royalties to film and TV productions using the song. Reportedly, Warner/Chappell has been raking in roughly $2 million annually on royalties alone. The problem is, the company has been collecting checks that should have never been written in the first place.
According to Judge King’s ruling, the copyright filed in 1935 pertained to specific piano arrangements of the music, not the actual song. Furthermore, Warner/Chappell may have to pay back the royalties they’ve collected, an undisclosed–yet surely whopping–sum. For those poor producers and other creators who’ve had to dish out thousands of bucks or use these weird, substitute songs, this week’s ruling is something to sing about!