Judge George H. King of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently ruled that Warner-Chappell Music does not own a valid copyright in the lyrics to “Happy Birthday.” The decision came in a class action case brought by a group of plaintiffs, which like many others before, were compelled to pay a royalty of $1,500 to use the lyrics.

The parties agreed that Warner-Chappell did not own copyright in the music to “Happy Birthday,” which was borrowed from another song “Good Morning to You” that had entered the public domain some time ago. So the dispute here was just about the lyrics.

The problem Warner-Chappell had is they could not show the ownership of the copyright in the lyrics had been validly transferred to them. Warner-Chappell had argued the lyrics were written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill around the turn of the last century, and that the sisters transferred their rights to Summy Co., which subsequently published and registered the work for copyright in 1935. Warner-Chappell then bought the copyright registration from Summy Co.

Based on current evidence, Judge King could not be sure who wrote the lyrics, and the plaintiffs did not manage to show that the Hill sisters had divested or abandoned any rights they had over the lyrics. But crucially, Warner-Chappell failed to show that any rights which the Hills did own to the lyrics were actually transferred to Summy Co. As a result, Summy’s U.S. copyright registration – now owned by Warner-Chappell – only protects a specific piano arrangement of the song and not the lyrics.

Unlike the U.S., in the UK there is no system of copyright registration. However, the same issues of proving a valid chain of ownership in (unregistered) copyright are equally relevant in cases here, especially for older songs.

The judgment will be heralded by film and theater producers who would previously have had to pay to include “Happy Birthday” in their work. However, they may want to keep the champagne on ice in case there is an appeal.

This post was written by Nick Aries, an attorney at Bird & Bird in the UK. His litigation practice focuses on trademark infringement and passing off, and also covers breach of contract, trade secrets, and designs. He also acts in proceedings before the UK IPO and OHIM.

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