A historic copyright ruling just made 'Happy Birthday' free to sing

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

A judge ruled Tuesday that all copyright claims to the song "Happy Birthday" were invalid, and that anyone can now use it for commercial purposes.


"It now belongs to the public," Mark Rifkin, a lawyer representing a documentary filmmaker who filed the suit against Sony, told me by phone.

I recently reported how, for almost eight decades, the most-sung song in the world had been deemed not in the public domain, as various publishers claimed copyright over the song's words and lyrics. That meant you actually had to pay to use it for commercial purposes. Many restaurants and entertainment venues were thus forced to come up with alternative versions to get around this. (Someone also created a compilation video of all the times movies and TV shows avoided using the song).

Nevertheless, the song was said to have been generating $2 million annually for its purported rights holder, Warner-Chappell, which is owned by Sony.

But in a 40-page decision, U.S. District Court Judge George H. King said he could find no evidence that the song's creators, a pair of sisters named Mildred and Patty Hill, ever transferred copyright of the lyrics to a publisher.

“There is no evidence that Patty or any of the Hill sisters (a third sister eventually took over their estate) ever fought to protect the Happy Birthday lyrics on their own such that we might infer that they would have wanted to give their rights to [publisher] Summy Co. to continue to protect them,” he wrote. “The Hill sisters never tried to obtain a copyright for Happy Birthday on their own, even though Patty claimed to have written the lyrics decades earlier. None of the Hill sister ever sued anyone for infringing the lyrics.”

A Sony rep did not immediately respond to comment.

“This is a great victory for musicians, artists, and people around the world who have waited decades for this," Jennifer Nelson, the filmmaker producing a documentary about the song, said in a statement. "I am thrilled to be a part of the historic effort to set ‘Happy Birthday’ free and give it back to the public where it belongs.”


You can read the full decision here:

HBD Summary Judgment Order


Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.