Judge Rules That “Happy Birthday” Is Public Domain

A federal judge has ruled that the music publishing company that has been collecting royalties for the song "Happy Birthday to You" for decades does not hold a valid copyright to the popular celebratory song.

U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled that the copyright originally filed by the Clayton F. Summy Co. in 1935 granted rights only to the melody and specific arrangements of the tune but not to the actual song itself, as Summy never acquired the rights to the song’s lyrics.

Warner/Chappell Music has been enforcing the copyright claim since it bought Summy’s successor, the Birch Tree Group, in 1988.

“Happy Birthday to You” had reportedly been generating some $2 million in royalties per year for Warner/Chappell Music. The next step in the case will be to determine if Warner/Chappell must return money it has collected through the years for licensing the song.