Despite being the English language’s most popular song, “Happy Birthday to You” actually belongs to Warner/Chappell and is not public domain. The company has sensationally claimed ownership rights to the song sang in millions of birthday celebrations from time immemorial and would enforce payment rights for its use against all who sing without their prior consent.
Warner/Chappell, in a hearing on Monday at downtown Los Angeles’s Edward R. Roybal courthouse, sought a summary judgement from U.S. District Judge George King, affirming their ownership rights for the popular song. In the class action complaint that was first filed in 2013, Warner opposed claims that the song was in the public domain, justifying the downright illegal arm twisting of people who use the song into paying them.
Good Morning to You Productions, the plaintiff, in challenging Warner’s claim, sought a judgement declaring the 120-year-old song was in the public domain, hence no company had exclusive rights to its use and benefits.
Shocking revelations emerged in the hearing of how Warner strong armed people into paying for the song’s use. Even more shocking were the ridiculous amounts the company claimed from people for using the song, some of which went up to six figures!
Speaking for the Good Morning to You Productions, presenter Jennifer Nelson said she once paid $1500 for the use of the song that has been in the public domain for over 65 years.
Nelson said, “If you don't pay for the license to the song they will notify you and let you know that you have to pay. They've never actually sued anybody but they have strong-armed people into having to pay."
In defence, Warner stated before the court that the company had a valid copyright for the song registered in 1935.
The original melody for the song was strung up in the late 1800s, years before Warner/Chappell, through Clayton F. Sunny Company, sought two copyright registrations for the song. The song was played across the world by millions of people for over 30 years before Warner sought the controversial copyrights. How does that not amount to being the public domain?
The plaintiffs would have none of it. They averred that the song could not possibly be copyrightable as it was already in the public domain. They further downplayed the two copyrights, stating that they were only for “specific piano arrangements,” not for general use.
Should Judge King decline to rule in favor of either or the parties, the case would go to trial.
Warner’s claims are as sensational as they are baseless. To deny millions the right to sing English’s most recognizable song, or worse, make them pay for it would not only be a travesty to justice but would amount to exactly what is wrong with capitalistic America today.