Developments in lawsuit over “Happy Birthday” copyright

| Aug 6, 2015 | Copyright Law

The legal battle over the rights to the music and lyrics of the song ‘Happy Birthday” took an unexpected turn on July 29 when a songbook containing the song was presented in a California court. Good Morning to You Productions is making a documentary about ‘Happy Birthday,” and the company claims that the songbook, which was published in 1922, is evidence that the ubiquitous tune has been in the public domain for decades.

Warner Music Group owns the copyright to ‘Happy Birthday,” but Good Morning to You Productions maintain that the songbook is evidence that the 1935 copyright owned by Warner is invalid. It claims that the book indicates that the song had entered the public domain well before the copyright was issued. The songbook contains both the song’s music and lyrics. Good Morning to You Productions also points to a 1935 magazine article in which the writer of ‘Happy Birthday’s” lyrics accepted that the tune had become the property of the nation.

The current case is not the first time that a dispute has developed over the song. Irving Berlin was required to pay royalties after using ‘Happy Birthday” in a 1930s musical, and a media storm erupted when Warner demanded payment from the Girl Scouts after acquiring the rights to the song in 1988. There were even reports that Congress would be pursued legally after lawmakers sang “Happy Birthday” to President Reagan.

This case shows that litigation over intellectual property can be both complex and contentious. Attorneys with experience in this area could explain the importance of protecting intellectual property with patents, trademarks and copyrights. Attorneys may also assess the steps already taken to protect intellectual property and make suggestions designed to reduce the possibility of litigation or infringement.

Source: The Los Angeles Times, ‘Happy Birthday’ to whom? A simple song with a complex copyright history and lawsuit, Christine Mai-Duc, July 29, 2015

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