A judge’s ruling over the song ‘A Happy Birthday To You’ has hit the wrong note with a music publishing company that has wrongly collected millions of pounds of performances royalties for decades.
A class action by musicians, TV producers and film makers challenged the giant Warner /Chappell corporation over their insistence they owned all rights to the popular song heard at parties, in films and on TV and radio thousands of times every day.
The company is estimated to have earned at least £1.3 million a year by levying a fee every time the music was played in a film, TV programme, on the radio, in a theatre, during an advert or performed in any other public place.
However, US District Judge George H King sitting in Los Angeles, California, ruled that the company bought the rights to a specific musical arrangement of the song in 1988 and could only claim royalties if that arrangement was played.
The original words
The song was written in 1893 by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill with different words set to the familiar Happy Birthday tune. They were:
“Good morning to you,
Good morning to you.
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all…”
Patty Hill was a teacher and wrote the song to welcome her pupils to class each day.
The title was ‘Good Morning To All’.
Copyright disputes dog song
Although various copyright rulings over who owns the rights to the song affect public performances, anyone can sing the song in private without fear of having to pay for the privilege.
Warner/Chappell has now settled out of court, after releasing a statement to the effect they disagreed with the judge’s ruling. They did not indicate whether an appeal was in the pipeline, but it is understood that this is not the case.
The copyright issues were so complicated that one producer making a documentary about the history of the song was sent a bill for $1,500 by Warner/Chappell for using a fragment of the song in the programme.
The terms of the out of court settlement made by the company have not been revealed.