The world's most popular song may not yet be free to use just yet.
Last month, a judge ruled that the rights to "Happy Birthday To You," which is said to generate $2 million a year in royalties, had been inappropriately claimed by Warner Chappell, the publishing arm of Warner Music Group, and that the song belonged in the public domain.
In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge George H. King said it was unclear whether the song’s creators, a pair of sisters named Mildred and Patty Hill, had ever transferred copyright of the full song, including the lyrics we know today (it originally started off as a song called "Good Morning To All"), to a publisher.
But last week, attorneys for Warner filed for a reconsideration of King's ruling, and failing that, an appeal.
Their argument boils down to the language used in two of the copyright agreements Warner stakes its claim on, one from 1935 and one from 1944.
Concerning the earlier document, they admit that Patty Hill's name was omitted as a copyright claimant, but that this is immaterial because the intent of the copyright claim — to register "Happy Birthday" as we know it today — was clear.
As for the latter, they argue that even if the 1935 copyright claim failed to take, the 1944 claim explicitly states that the Hill foundation was transferring all of their "right, title and interest … in and to” a list of specifically enumerated “books and musical compositions” published by Summy, including “‘Happy Birthday to You’, Piano Solo with Words.” to a publisher.
Judge King addressed both of these arguments in his original ruling and dismissed them, arguing the copyright to the "Happy Birthday" lyrics as opposed to ("Good Morning To All") could not be clearly established. So it is unlikely he will grant Warner's request for a reconsideration, meaning the dispute will likely pass on to an appeals court.
Mark Rifkin, a lawyer for the filmmaker who originally sued Warner over the song, told me he believes the new claims are completely without merit.
You can view the new motion here:
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.