The world’s most popular song is no longer under copyright, a federal court judge has ruled.
US district judge George H King in Los Angeles has declared the song Happy Birthday to You belongs in the public domain, dealing a blow to the music publishing company that has been collecting royalties from the song for decades.
The judge ruled on Tuesday the copyright originally filed by the Clayton F Summy Co in 1935 applied to a specific arrangement of the song, not the tune itself.
King ruled that Summy never acquired the rights to the song’s lyrics, and the defendants’ claims to the contrary were “implausible and unreasonable”.
“Because Summy Co never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, [the] defendants, as Summy Co’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics,” King wrote in a judgment posted online.
Up until now, Warner Chappell Music, a division of the Warner Music Group, has charged people for use of the song.
Warner Chappell Music has been enforcing the copyright claim since it bought Summy’s successor, Birchtree Ltd, in 1988. It reportedly paid $25m for the company.
Happy Birthday was written by sisters Parry and Mildred Hill in 1883, and is often claimed to be the world’s most popular song.
Without the court judgment, it would not have been freely available in the public domain in the US until 2030, and in the EU until 31 December 2016.