If you are reading this it is likely that at some point you have either sung “Happy Birthday” to someone or had it sung to you. Few singing the song probably considered that they were potentially infringing on a copyright.
In 1998 Warner Music Group purchased the company that owned the rights to the song that was written by sisters more than a century earlier. In the years since the purchase, claiming copyright to the song, Warner/Chappell earned fees on the song totaling more than $2 million.
After being told they needed to pay a fine of $1,500, a company making a documentary about the song challenged the validity of Warner/Chappells’ copyright. In the lawsuit Good Morning To You Productions filed, it claimed that the only copyright Warner/Chappell owned was a limited piano arrangement.
A U.S. District Court Judge agreed with the production company finding that Warner/Chappell did not have a copyright to the lyrics of the song since the company it acquired, believing it held the rights, actually did not.
This ruling will mean that Warner/Chappell will no longer be able to acquire fees from third parties for the use of the song. Filmmakers and Hollywood movie studios benefit the most from this since they will not longer face the threat of legal action for failing to pay a licensing fee.
This case illustrates the way in which a valid copyright can work for someone who owns it. It also shows there are situations where it makes sense to challenge a copyright holder.