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Charity says it could be the actual owner of Happy Birthday

By | Published on Thursday 12 November 2015


There was an interesting new development in the ‘Happy Birthday’ copyright case early this week as a beneficiary of the song went public for the first time.

As previously reported, the copyright status of the popular ditty is currently in limbo following a court ruling in September. A film producer sued ‘Happy Birthday’ publisher Warner/Chappell, arguing that the copyright in the song had actually expired in the US, and therefore the Warner subsidiary should no longer be taking money when the work is used in America.

There were various strands to the legal battle, which centred on the song’s lyrics. In a summary judgement, the judge hearing the case ruled on one of those strands, concluding that the sisters who wrote the song never transferred ownership of the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics to their publisher. Warner/Chappell’s current claim to the song stems from it buying that publisher in the 1980s.

It’s still not entirely clear what that means regarding the copyright in the song in the US, because the whole issue relates to early 20th century US laws, copyright term rules at that time, and who, if anyone, registered the lyrics, and when. In Europe, where the copyright term relates to the death of the Hill sisters, the song remains protected for another year.

Either way, if Warner/Chappell never acquired the rights to the lyrics, who is the owner, and who should be getting any cash that is due? Enter the Association For Childhood Education, which was seemingly co-founded by Patty Hill, and which is still a beneficiary of the song. The charity works with the United Nations to monitor childhood education practices around the world, and provides grants to education schemes.

On Monday, the charity stepped forward, first to say that if the US courts ultimately decide ‘Happy Birthday’ is public domain, an important income stream will be cut off and its good works will be hindered. But, perhaps more interestingly, ACE reckons that – if the Hill sisters never did assign the copyright in their lyrics, as had previously been assumed – then it might actually own the copyright itself.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, a legal filing by ACE’s reps reads: “While, until recently, the applicants believed there was a valid assignment between [publisher] Summy Co and the Hill sisters, the court’s summary judgment order raised the very real likelihood that the applicants are, in fact, the owners of the copyrights”.

The ‘Happy Birthday’ legal battle is far from over, with Warner/Chappell seeking a rethink on and the right to appeal the summary judgement, while the film company who pursued the action want it to be clarified that the song is now public domain. Depending how those wranglings turn out, ACE could end up with no ‘Happy Birthday’ money, or all of it.