Warner/Chappell Battles In Court Over 'Happy Birthday' Rights
March 24, 2015 at 12:26 PM (PT)
In a court battle to fight claims that the 120-year-old "Happy Birthday To You" is in the public domain, a representative for WARNER/CHAPPELL testified it charges major motion pictures between five and six figures to license the song, but nothing to perform it for your kids' party.
Those tidbits came to light at yesterday's hearing in downtown LOS ANGELES, where U.S. District Court Judge GEORGE KING heard various arguments for summary judgment in the 2013 class action complaint.
GOOD MORNING TO YOU PRODUCTIONS claims WARNER/CHAPPELL collects millions of dollars in licensing fees for the song, even though its origins, and who owns the copyright, are in dispute.
GOOD MORNING Pres. JENNIFER NELSON called it "ridiculous" people have to pay for a song in the public domain for the last 65 years, claiming she had to pay $1,500 to use "Happy Birthday" at a festival.
WARNER/CHAPPELL insists its ownership extends to a valid federal copyright registration for the song in 1935.
The plaintiffs claim the song was not copyrightable because it had already been performed for over three decades, and by then was a public work. In addition, the registrations were only for "specific piano arrangements," according to the lawsuit.
Even if KING declines to rule in favor of either the plaintiffs or music publisher, the case could still go to trial.
WARNER/CHAPPELL attorney KELLY KLAUS claimed not to know the exact figures charged by the publisher, but clarified what the license fees cover, which does not include "little kids' birthday parties in the back yard."
WARNER/CHAPPELL head of legal and business affairs SCOTT McDOWELL said music synchronization license varies but can cost from $500 to $1,500, while blanket license agreements with performing rights organizations cover some public performances of the song.
The plaintiffs' attorney MARK RIFKIN revealed his client, filmmaker ROBERT SIEGEL had paid $3,000 to use "Happy Birthday" in his indie comedy, "Big Fan.'
WARNER/CHAPPELL bases its claim of ownership on a pair of 1935 copyright registrations by the CLAYTON F. SUMMY COMPANY for publishing the song in songbooks, though it does not claim to be its author.
The song's original melody was composed in the late 19th century by KENTUCKY school teacher MILDRED HILL, part of a composition for a song called "Good Morning To All," with lyrics by her sister PATTY, according to court records. The sisters assigned their rights to SUMMY for 10% of retail sales. WARNER/CHAPPELL says it acquired the copyright as part of its $15 million purchase of BIRCH TREE GROUP LIMITED in 1988.
Judge KING took the case under submission, and did not give an indication when he will rule.