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Music News

Filmmakers stumble on old document that means the world's most popular song has NO copyright

Filmmakers stumble on old document that means the world's most popular song has NO copyright

Happy Birthday was written in 1883 by Parry and Mildred Hill, and is the world's most popular song. In copyright, it earns Warner Chappell - the company that owns it - around an estimated £1.3 million a year.

That all may be about to change and all due to a small group of filmmakers who were pissed off with an unreasonable bill.

Good Morning To You Productions, a company led by Director Jennifer Nelson were working on a documentary about the song and filed a lawsuit claiming the song should not be under copyright, after being told they would have to pay $1,500 to use it in their film.

The groups attorneys have found a songbook from 1927 containing Happy Birthday, with no copyright notice. This predates Warner Chappell’s copyright by eight years. The songbook was in documents handed over by the publisher this month - they were supposed to be produced during the discovery period in the case, which ended more than a year ago, but were “mistakenly” not produced.

Here's how Good Morning To You Productions' lawyers have summarised why it should now be in the public domain:

“It and earlier versions of the song that Plaintiffs subsequently located through their own investigative efforts conclusively prove that any copyright that may have existed for the song itself (ie the setting of the Happy Birthday lyrics to the melody of Good Morning) expired decades ago. This newly discovered evidence is fully consistent with Plaintiffs’ arguments that (i) Patty Hill gave the lyrics to the public when she wrote them as a version of the song she wrote with her sister Mildred Hill and (ii) that the 1935 copyrights covered only specific piano arrangements of the song. More importantly, it trumps all of Defendants’ arguments.”

The initial copyright claim came from the Summy Company in 1935, and ownership of that copyright passed to Warner Chappell in 1988. The publisher says copyright will expire in the US in 2030, though it will enter the public domain in the EU by 31 December 2016.


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