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California Federal Judge Finds ‘Happy Birthday’ Song Copyright To Be Invalid

            On September 22, 2015, Chief Judge George H. King of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a summary judgment ruling declaring invalid Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., and Summy-Birchard, Inc.’s  purported copyright to the lyrics of the song  Happy Birthday To You (Happy Birthday). Marya v. Warner/Chappell Music, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129575.  The parties dispute who wrote the lyrics to Happy Birthday.  Defendants claimed that Patty Hill wrote the lyrics, while plaintiffs argued that the lyrics may have been written by someone else.

                Judge Hill noted that the Happy Birthday tune is the same as another song called Good Morning To All (Good Morning). At some time before 1893, Patty Hill wrote the lyrics to Good Morning, while her sister Mildred Hill (with Patty’s help) composed the tune. In 1934 Jessica Hill, a third Hill sister, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit. The basis for her infringement claim in that case was not that the defendants had infringed any rights she allegedly had in the Happy Birthday lyrics, but rather that the defendants had infringed the copyright to Good Morning.

            In denying the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment with respect to authorship, Judge King found that a reasonable fact finder may choose to believe that Patty Hill wrote the lyrics in 1893 but, for whatever reason, failed to publically say so until some 40 years later. 

                Judge King denied plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment with respect to their claim that even, if even if Patty Hill wrote the lyrics to Happy Birthday, she lost the rights to the lyrics through divestive publication before 1935. Judge King also concluded that neither party was entitled to summary judgment regarding whether Patty Hill abandoned her common law rights to the lyrics. 

                However, regarding transfer of the Happy Birthday lyrics, Judge Hill found no support in the record that Patty Hill and Jessica Hill gave the right in the lyrics to the Clayton F. Summy Company (Summy Co.) to exploit and protect.  The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but not the lyrics themselves. There was no evidence that any of the Hill sisters ever fought to protect the Happy Birthday lyrics on their own such that it might be inferred that they would have wanted to give their rights to Summy Co. to continue to protect them. The Hill sisters never tried to obtain a copyright for Happy Birthday on their own.  

Judge Hill noted that Summy Co.’s own behavior did not show that any transfer occurred. Although Summy Co. filed several lawsuits claiming that Happy Birthday had been infringed, it never asserted that any copyright interest it purportedly held in the Happy Birthday  lyrics had been infringed in those lawsuits. 

In his conclusion, Judge Hill found that because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, the defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the lyrics. 

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