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A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that Warner/Chappell Music does not own the copyright rights to the famous "Happy Birthday to You" song, which has become a nearly mandatory part of birthday celebrations across the country and beyond.
Federal judge George H. King made the ruling Tuesday in response to a lawsuit that sought to have the song placed in the public domain. Tuesday's ruling means the song is now in the public domain and the company can no longer charge for public performances, the law firm that filed the suit said.
Warner/Chappell claimed it assumed copyright of the song when it acquired Birch Tree Ltd. in 1998. The lawsuit claims the company has "extracted millions of dollars in unlawful licensing fees" since then.
King ruled that a copyright claimed by the predecessor of Birch Tree, the Clayton F. Summy Co., in 1935 only applied to the various piano arrangements, not the lyrics.
"Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics," King wrote in his decision.
The suit claims Warner/Chappell collects $2 million a year in licensing fees for the song.
The lawsuit was filed after the music company in 2013 filed a claim against a musician who recorded the song during an event in San Francisco.
Both sides conceded that the melody was in the public domain a long time ago, but Warner/Chappell claimed it still had the legal rights to the lyrics.
"We are extremely pleased with today's decision declaring that Warner Chappell does not own a copyright to Happy Birthday, the world's most popular song," an attorney for the plaintiffs, Mark Rifkin, said in a an emailed statement.
"We look forward to moving forward with the rest of the case, in which we will ask the court to order Warner Chappell to return all the money it has wrongfully collected under a claim of copyright ownership," he said.
Warner/Chappell issued a brief statement that said, "We are looking at the court's lengthy opinion and considering our options," according to The Associated Press.
The song is based on a melody from "Good Morning to All," which has different lyrics and was written by two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, sometime before 1893, according to court documents.
The lyrics to "Good Morning to All," written by Patty Hill, are: "Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning dear children / Good morning to all." The rights to that song were sold to Clayton F. Summy in 1893.
Patty Hill reportedly said in a deposition related to a 1934 lawsuit — which only claimed infringement on "Good Morning to All" — that she wrote the "Happy Birthday" lyrics, according to court documents.
King ruled that although it is unclear whether Patty Hill wrote the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You," the Hill sisters never made a legal claim to the lyrics. And King said Warner/Chappell could not prove that the sisters gave the rights to the "Happy Birthday" lyrics to Summy Co.
"Defendants ask us to find that 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 piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics," King wrote.