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Copyright fight


"Happy Birthday to You" was written in 1893 by two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, for use in kindergarten classrooms. They released the rights to their song—then known as "Good Morning to You"—to their publishing company in exchange for a cut of the profits. It went on to become the most recognizable song in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The copyright is currently claimed by Warner/Chappell Music Inc. But in September, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled the company's copyright invalid. The judge, George King, based his ruling in large part on a 1922 songbook that included the "Good Morning and Birthday Song," with writing credits attributed to the Hill sisters and a note indicating it was published with "special permission" from the company who then held the rights. The judge ruled that the copyright claim covered only the tune and specific arrangements, the copyright of which expired long ago.

Because the original publisher of "Happy Birthday to You" filed another copyright claim covering the lyrics in 1935, Warner argued those rights would be valid until 2020. But in 2013, law professor Robert Brauneis researched the history of the song, concluding the copyright had almost certainly already lapsed. That inspired Jennifer Nelson—a documentarian making a film about the "Happy Birthday" song, who had been told she'd need to pay to use it—to sue Warner, leading to the recent ruling.

Next up: a class action suit to recover those royalty payments from Warner, perhaps going back to 1935.