Court Finds Warner Does Not Hold Rights to “Happy Birthday” Song

In the Marya v. Warner/Chappel Music dispute over the copyright status of the song “Happy Birthday,” the District Court for the Central District of California found in its September 22, 2015 opinion that Warner does not hold a valid copyright over the lyrics.

The ruling went through the history of publication of the melody and lyrics to “Happy Birthday,” which uses the same melody and similar lyrics to a children’s song, “Good Morning,” written prior to 1893.  The exact date of the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” were unclear, though references were made to the song since 1901.  While the parties agreed that the melody entered the public domain long ago, they disagree on the status of the copyright of the lyrics to “Happy Birthday.”

The Plaintiffs in the case sought declaratory judgment, arguing the Defendants did not hold the valid copyright on several grounds: the lyrics were written by someone else, the common law copyright in the lyrics were lost due to general publication or abandonment, and that the rights were never transferred to the company Summy Co.  In determining where the burden of proof lies, the district court relied on the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Medtronic, Inc. v. Mirowski Family Ventures which placed the burden of proof on the patent holder in the case.  Thus, the district court noted “just as in Medtronic, there is no reason to relieve the alleged owners of the intellectual property of the usual burden of proof just because they are nominally the defendants in this declaratory judgment.”

The Defendants argued that evidence of registration entitled them to a presumption of validity.  The district court rejected this argument because “Even assuming that the lyrics were printed in the deposit copy for E51990, it is unclear whether those lyrics were being registered, and therefore it is unclear with the Copyright Office determined the validity of Summy Co.’s alleged interest in the lyrics in 1935” because the registration covered a piano arrangement purportedly a derivative version of another melody.  The registration did not make clear that the lyrics were being registered.  The court also found that the question of who wrote the lyrics and whether the lyrics had been divested or abandoned were open ones that would require a trial.

The court did, however, find that a lawsuit between the purported authors (the Hill sisters) of the lyrics and Summy Co. in 1942 revealed evidence that the Hill sisters transferred only the melodies to Summy and did not transfer the lyrics.  Both parties in the 1942 litigation described the transfer agreement as transferring the rights to “piano arrangements,” and the district court in the present case therefore found “it is not logical to infer that rights to ‘piano arrangements’ would include rights to any lyrics or words as well.”  Thus, “Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”

Ultimately, the court holds only that Warner does not hold a valid copyright in “Happy Birthday,” not necessarily that the work is in the public domain (a full trial or appeal could find the work to be in the public domain, given that the district court denied motions for summary judgment on the basis that there were other triable issues).  While this ruling is certainly a cause for celebration because the song “Happy Birthday” is free from Warner’s licensing requirements, it also highlights a problem with the extensive copyright terms in the United States.  It can be extremely difficult to determine who holds the copyright — or even if a valid one still exists — given the extremely long copyright terms that last for seventy years beyond the life of the author, or ninety-five years for corporate works.  Copyright terms lasting well beyond the life of the author clearly exacerbates the orphan works problem.