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Judge Shoots Down Happy Birthday Copyright Claim

It is perhaps the most recognizable ditty in the world - and for nearly three decades, music business giant Warner/Chappell Hill has made millions each year exercising its copyright claim to "Happy Birthday to You." But the company isn't celebrating today. California's U.S. District Judge George H. King recently shot down the company's claim, along with those of other copyright claimants who have made money on the song for upward of 80 years.

Judge King's ruling held that Warner/Chappell never had the right to charge for the use of the song to which it had enforced copyright since 1988, the year it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original disputed copyright. Rather, King ruled that the copyright granted Summy back in 1935 covered only rights to specific piano arrangements of the music - not to the song itself.

The lawsuit was brought by a group of independent filmmakers, each of whom had paid thousands of dollars to use the song in their productions. For decades, Warner/Chappel Hill has collected royalties from producers of films, television shows, stage productions as well as greeting card makers and restaurants where employees sang "Happy Birthday to You" to patrons - a move that prompted many restaurateurs to write birthday songs of their own instead. Judge King's ruling effectively releases the song to public domain, though Warner/Chappell Hill could ask to appeal the decision.

The battle's roots go back to 1893, when Mildred Hill wrote a song for sister Patty Hill's kindergarten students:

"Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning, dear children / Good morning to all."

The sisters published the ditty in a children's song book, assigning copyright to publisher, Clayton F. Summy Co. in exchange for a portion of the sales. Throughout the case, attorneys posed questions as to whether the Hill sisters had written the "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics that accompanied their original melody and whether they had abandoned their rights to the song altogether. In any case, there exists no evidence that the women ever asserted a copyright claim for the "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics, Judge King ruled.

The ruling means that, for now at least, the song is  freely available to anyone for use without payment. If you are a filmmaker or other content producer unsure of whether a song, lyric or melody you want to use is in the public domain or available for licensed use, or if you believe that your copyrighted song is being used without authorization, contact Orlando's Daniel Law Offices at 407-841-8375 or toll-free at 866-37PATENT.

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