Yesterday US District Judge George H. King ruled the world’s most popular English-language song is free from copyright. The latest challenge to Warner/Chappell’s hold on the tune, worth around $2 million a year, came from a filmmaker. The opinion contends that the ruling establishes that the rights were never properly transferred. The “Happy Birthday” song dates to the late 19th century work by teacher Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred.
The ruling reads in part: “Defendants ask us to find the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record. The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to the piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics.