Happy or Un-Happy Birthday – copyright over a famous song!

Happy or Un-Happy Birthday – copyright over a famous song!

Songs form the corner stone of the music industry. Section 17 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957 states that the author (composer and the lyricist in case of a song) is the first owner of the copyright. No one has the right to exploit a song unless the author of the song authorizes him/her to do so. So who takes up the responsibility of protecting and enforcing the rights related to the song. Publishing companies take this task upon themselves by getting the rights of the authors of the song assigned to them. Publishing of music can be both complex as well as confusing as it involves promoting, issuing of licenses, collecting royalties, etc.

One of the most important steps involved in protecting the song is to make sure that the copyright is registered correctly. Only because one owns the copyright in a work, it ought not to be presumed that copyright owner would not bear the burden of proof in a suit contesting the ownership of copyright. A simple evidence put forth by the challenging party negating the copyright owner’s claim can shift the burden of proof.

A recent case that played out in the United States would be apt to elucidate this – The Warner/Chappell law suit. The long drawn out “Happy Birthday” controversy of Warner Chappell has been in dispute for decades now. A group of artists and film makers who were billed for using the song in 2013 filed a class action law suit against Warner/Chappell disclaiming the latter’s copyright in the “Happy Birthday” song. The copyright in the song has been transferred and was held by Warner/ Chappell since 1988. Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill composed “Good Morning to all” as early as in 1890’s which then became renowned internationally. The same tune was incorporated in the “Happy Birthday” song as well. The Hill sisters then sold their interest to Clayton F. Summy Co. who filed the copyright and published the song in 1935. Over the years, the rights passed from Clayton F. Summy Co. to Birch Tree Group and finally to Warner/Chappell in 1988 when it bought Birch Tree.

Warner/Chappell claimed exclusive copyright to the song and had been collecting royalties for several years and were to continue doing the same until the expiration of their rights in 2030. The company collected royalties each time the song was used for commercial purposes.

Judge George King after three years of innumerable hearings in late 2015, noted that although the tune has been in the public domain for years, the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” were not published anywhere until 1911 and it was only in 1935 that Jessica Hill,  another Hill sister demonstrated the undeniable similarity between “Good morning to all” and “Happy Birthday” and further secured a copyright of the song as the Hill sisters claimed to have written the lyrics for “Happy Birthday” along with “Good morning to all”. While the information about who actually wrote the lyrics of the song are quite vague, Warner/Chapell contentiously claimed copyright over the song in its entirety and has been earning royalties for over a quarter of a century now. However, Judge King finally ruled that Summy Co. never acquired the lyrics of the “Happy Birthday” song and in fact did not have copyright over it. The ownership claims of the company over the popular song thus came to a tragic end.

The company then settled to pay a massive sum of $14 million to all the parties that paid for the license of the iconic “Happy Birthday” song to end the law suit. The case garnered attention internationally not only because the tune was commonly known but also because most people were unaware that the song was still under copyright protection owned by a major corporation such as Warner/Chappell.

“Happy Birthday”, one of the world’s most popular songs is finally free and in public domain after 80 years. The ruling meant that royalties would no longer have to be paid to Warner/Chappell for use of the popular song. Although this comes as a boon to a hand full of film makers and artists, for Warner/Chappell it proved to be a bane. This is a good lesson for every artist or author which teaches us that one needs to register their copyright with adequate care.

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