Music Publisher Caught in Birthday Suit
by Tal Grinblat & Nicholas Kanter
In 2013, Good Morning to You Productions Corp., Rupa Marya and Robert Siegel (collectively “GMTY”) filed a class action suit against Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., one of the largest music publishing companies in the world and Summy-Birchard, Inc. (collectively “WCMI”), to invalidate the copyright registration of the song Happy Birthday To You.
GMTY claimed the song is in the public domain, that WCMI has no rights to the lyrics or melody, and that WCMI should return “millions of dollars of unlawful licensing fees” received over the years.
In 1893, Mildred and Patty Hill sold a manuscript containing 73 songs composed by the sisters, including one piece titled Good Morning to All (melody composed by Mildred; lyrics written by Patty), to Clayton F. Summy, which Summy subsequently published in a songbook called Song Stories for the Kindergarten. Summy applied to register the copyright in the songbook that same year.
Validity of the Summy Copyright Registration
As a musical work, Happy Birthday has two primary copyrightable elements- one for the music composition (the tune); the other for the lyrics (song’s words). Each one is protected against infringement independently. The parties both conceded that the Happy Birthday melody entered the public domain years ago. The issue in the case was whether the lyrics were still protectable by copyright, and if so, who had those rights. WCMI contended that the Hill sisters authored the lyrics to the song, held it for several decades and then transferred it to Summy Co. in 1935, which subsequently published and registered the lyrics for federal copyright.
The issue for WCMI was that the copyright registration covered “arrangement as easy piano solo with text” and listed another person as the author of the lyrics. Hence, the copyright registration may not have covered the lyrics in the dispute.
Copyright Birthday Candles Begin Melting
The court held that WCMI had no evidence a transfer of the lyrics occurred from the Hill sisters to WCMI. It found that while the Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, no rights were transferred to the lyrics. The court explained that because Summy never acquired rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, WCMI as Summy’s successor-in-interest, did not hold a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics entitling them to collect royalty or licensing fees.
The Song May Never End
The battle may not be over, as Warner/Chappell is “reviewing their options” after the verdict, and GMTY will now move to qualify the lawsuit as a class action.
Though GMTY Productions may see their $1,500 license fee returned, the ruling signifies a landmark win for the “Davids” in this David and Goliath-like battle, particularly for musicians, entertainment productions and other artists around the world.
For business owners wanting to protect their own copyrights, the case serves as a reminder: Make sure you have the right to do so and keep good records of title to permit you to enforce rights in your copyrighted works.
Tal Grinblat and Nicholas Kanter are intellectual property attorneys at our firm. They can be reached via email or phone: firstname.lastname@example.org or 818-907-3284; and email@example.com or 818-907-3289.