A production company making a documentary about the song "Happy Birthday to You" is challenging the copyright to the famous jingle.
Good Morning to You Productions, which is working on a film tentatively titled "Happy Birthday," argues in a lawsuit filed today that the song should be "dedicated to public use and in the public domain." The company is seeking monetary damages and restitution of more than $5 million in licensing fees collected by Warner/Chappell Music from thousands of people and groups who have paid it licensing fees.
"More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of 'Happy Birthday to You' is set was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright," the lawsuit states.
Warner/Chappell claims exclusive copyright to "Happy Birthday to You," which Guinness World Records has called the most famous song in the English language. The company, whose artists include Aretha Franklin, Barry Gibb, Rob Zombie, Madonna and Michael Jackson, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Good Morning to You Productions argues that evidence dating to 1893 helps show that the song's copyright expired around 1921. It says four previous copyrights to the melody of the similar-sounding song "Good Morning to All"—filed in 1893, 1896, 1899 and 1907—have expired or been forfeited.
The class-action lawsuit states that Warner/Chappell claims the exclusive copyright to the song based on piano arrangements published in 1935 but that the copyright applies only to the arrangements—not to the melody or lyrics.
The film company filed the suit after having to pay Warner/Chappell a $1,500 licensing fee and sign an agreement to use the song in a scene—or face a $150,000 penalty.