Happy Birthday-The gift of copyrights

A very special attorney at our firm has a birthday this upcoming week. It’s a good thing we won’t be infringing on someone’s intellectual property when we sing him “Happy Birthday to You.” Over the course of the last few years, you may have heard about this unique fight-the birthday song we all know and love was wrought with litigation. You look like a monkey and you stole my intellectual property too?

“Happy Birthday to You” also known as “Happy Birthday” was written by Patty Hill, a kindergarten principal in Louisville, Kentucky. Her sister Mildred and she used the melody of “Good Morning to All” with their new lyrics. It is believed that these sisters (who sound drink sweet tea or lemonade on the porch and bake peach cobbler lovely) wrote the lyrics around 1893. The lyrics made made their first written appearance in 1912. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Birthday_to_You

“The brief recap is that although the music and lyrics to “Good Morning” have a clear copyrightable moment in 1893, the same music coupled with the “Happy Birthday” words does not. The lawsuit notes the appearance in print in the early 1900s in various sources of alternate words, but without being authorized specifically by the Hills—who ostensibly retained copyright to “Good Morning,” not the Song Stories publisher—that doesn’t necessarily diminish their claim.”  http://boingboing.net/2015/08/07/the-twisted-history-of-the-hap.html

In July 2015, a filmmaker making a film about the history of the song claimed to have proof that the song should be public domain (instead of the company Warner/Chappell who had been claiming ownership of the song). The filmmaker explained that in 1934 a new Irving Berlin musical on Broadway called As Thousands Cheer featured a birthday scene in which “the birthday song, without the “Good Morning” verse [was performed]. As TIME reported in 1934, while the case was still ongoing, the producer of As Thousands Cheer was sued for plagiarism, to the tune of $250 in payment per performance. Though Patty Hill said that she had “long ago resigned herself to the fact that her ditty had become common property of the nation,” those who had paid to use the tune in the past—like Fox, which had used it in Baby Take a Bow, a Shirley Temple film released that same year—didn’t feel so easygoing about it, and neither did Hill’s family.” http://time.com/3976577/happy-birthday-copyright-history/.

Because this is a blog, you get the condensed version. Long story short, in 1935 the Hills decided to officially register the copyright of the birthday specific lyrics and were successful doing so. Because the Irving musical was popular, the song spread. The challenging part regarding intellectual property is that the song even early on had various versions, piano and other instrument accompaniments, verse re-writes, verse additions, and so on.https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/feb/09/happy-birthday-song-lawsuit-warner-chappell-settlement.

After 80 years, the Happy Birthday song has been freed. Before this year, Warner/Chappell was earning $2 million a year by licensing the song mostly for commercial use (not charging restaurants or birthday party attendees). “On February 8, 2016, Warner/Chappell agreed to pay a settlement of $14 million to those who had licensed the song…on June 28, 2016, the final settlement was officially granted. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Birthday_to_You

I’m sure you’ve never used the song for commercial use or planned on it. Regardless, now you know that while singing the song, you don’t have to worry about an attorney or the ghost of Patty Hill lurking over your shoulder.

At Mohr IP Law we do patents, trademarks, and copyrights. Instead of receiving a scratchy sweater from Grandma, maybe you can ask her and your other loved ones for the gift of intellectual property protection-the gift that keeps on giving. If you’re lucky our team will also sing you a song.

Condensed Timeline from: http://www.latimes.com/visuals/graphics/la-me-g-happy-birthdays-history-20150923-htmlstory.html


Louisville, Ky., sisters Mildred J. and Patty Smith Hill publish the song “Good Morning To All” and assign copyright to the publisher.


The producer of the Irving Berlin musical revue “As Thousands Cheer” sue for plagiarism when the song’s melody is used in a scene. The lawsuit is eventually settled.


The Clayton F. Summy Co. files for the copyright.


Marilyn Monroe sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to President John F. Kennedy at a celebration of his 45th birthday.


The successor to the Summy Co., the Birch Tree Group, is purchased by Warner Music for $15 million, and through that acquires the rights to “Happy Birthday.”


Los Angeles Judge George H. King rules that the Summy Co. never acquired a valid copyright to the song, and that the 1935 copyright covered only specific piano arrangements of the tune.



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