“Happy Birthday,” one of the best-known songs in the English language and a staple at any American child’s birthday party, is now public domain for the first time in 27 years.
Federal judge George H. King ruled on Tuesday that Warner Music Group’s longstanding copyright claim on the song was invalid. The case’s plaintiff, filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, initially took the company to court in 2013 after she wished to make a documentary about the song but was denied access by Warner.
Warner Music, the largest American-owned music company in the world, has controlled rights to the tune since 1988 and reportedly earns more than $2 million each year in licensing fees for the song.
The copyright claim was rendered invalid because the judge ruled that Warner had never properly obtained rights to the birthday lyrics. The song’s predecessor, “Good Morning to All,” was published in 1893 by Clayton F. Summy Co. and represents the first registration of the modern “Happy Birthday” melody.
When Warner bought the Summy Co. catalog in 1988, they received rights to “Good Morning to All” but incorrectly claimed rights to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics, which were not included in the acquisition and have never been copyrighted by anyone.
In a statement, the plaintiff said, “This is a great victory for musicians, artists and people around the world who have waited decades for this. I am thrilled to be a part of the historic effort to set ‘Happy Birthday’ free and give it back to the public where it belongs.”
The legal battle is far from over, as several parties have joined with Nelson to call for millions of dollars in licensing fees to be returned by Warner to the licensee.
With the song officially “free,” artists everywhere will be able to record “Happy Birthday” without infringement. The song will see a long-awaited return to pop culture, where others in the film, television and music industries will have the liberty to use the tune.