Good Morning to You Productions v. Warner/Chappell Music
By Samantha Rothberg – Edited by Gillian Kassner
Complaint, Good Morning to You Productions Corp. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., 1:13-cv-04040 (S.D.N.Y., June 13, 2013)
Complaint hosted by The Wall Street Journal, online.wsj.com
Good Morning to You Productions Corp. (“GMTY”), a film production company, filed suit in federal court against Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. (“Warner/Chappell”), which holds the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You.” GMTY seeks to have the court invalidate the Happy Birthday copyright, declare the song to be in the public domain, and force Warner/Chappell to repay millions of dollars in licensing fees. GMTY’s complaint alleges that “[i]rrefutable documentary evidence” proves that any valid copyright in the song expired nearly a century ago. Complaint at 2. Although the copyright has been the subject of several prior lawsuits, its validity has never been adjudicated. Id. at 15–16.
The New York Times and Ars Technica both provide an overview of the case. Forbes provides some historical background for GMTY’s allegations. TechDirt notes that while commentators have argued for years that “the song is almost certainly in the public domain,” no one had thus far challenged the copyright in court because it was more cost-effective to pay the $1,500 licensing fee. This lawsuit’s multi-million-dollar class action structure changes that economic calculation.
GMTY is producing a documentary about the song “Happy Birthday to You.” Id. at 17. GMTY approached Warner/Chappell about using the song in their film, and were told that they could either pay a $1,500 license fee or pay statutory fees of $150,000 for copyright infringement. Id. at 17. GMTY paid the licensing fees. Id. at 18. However, they did not stop there. On behalf of a proposed class comprised of anyone who paid a licensing fee to Warner/Chappell for the use of “Happy Birthday to You” in the past four years, GMTY brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking a declaratory judgment that Warner/Chappell does not actually own a valid copyright for “Happy Birthday.” Id. at 21. If declaratory judgment is granted, GMTY requests injunctive relief and restitution of all license fees paid for the use of the song. Id. at 23.
GMTY’s complaint offers a wealth of historical detail. The complaint traces the song’s origins back to 1893, when the melody was first published as the song “Good Morning to You” by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill. Complaint at 3. The Hill sisters assigned their rights to Clayton F. Summy in exchange for 10% of the proceeds from Song Stories for the Kindergarten, a compilation that included the song. Id. at 3–4. Summy obtained a copyright for the compilation in 1893, and another copyright in a reissued version in 1896. Id. at 4–5.
In 1899, Summy published and copyrighted ”Good Morning to You” and 16 other songs by the Hill sisters in a new compilation, Song Stories for the Sunday School. Id. at 5–6. In 1907, he obtained a copyright for the song “Good Morning to You” as an individual musical composition. Id. Summy did not renew the 1893, 1896, 1899 or 1907 copyrights, which fell into the public domain when their 28-year copyright terms expired in 1921, 1924, 1927 and 1935, respectively. Id. at 8, 21.
The lyrics to “Happy Birthday” appear to have arisen more organically. The public began singing the familiar “Happy Birthday” lyrics at some point in the early 1900s, although it is not known who authored them. Id. at 6. The lyrics and music appeared together for the first time in a 1924 compilation by Robert H. Coleman, who neither claimed ownership of the song nor identified the rightful author or copyright owner. Id. at 8–9.
In 1935, Summy filed for a copyright for “Happy Birthday to You,” a piano arrangement of “Good Morning to You” that included the “Happy Birthday” lyrics. Summy did not attribute authorship of the lyrics or claim a copyright in the lyrics. Id. at 14–15. GMTY’s complaint alleges that this copyright was invalid for lack of original authorship. Id. at 15. In 1938, Summy granted the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (“ASCAP”) the right to license “Happy Birthday to You” and to collect fees on Summy’s behalf. Id. at 15. Summy’s company renewed the copyrights it obtained in 1934 and 1935, and was eventually acquired by Warner/Chappell in 1998. Id. at 16. Today, Warner/Chappell claims to own the exclusive copyright to “Happy Birthday to You.” Id. at 16–17.
If GMTY’s suit succeeds, Warner/Chappell and its parent company, the Warner Music Group, will lose a lucrative source of licensing revenue estimated at $2 million per year. They may also be obligated to pay back millions in licensing fees. However, the effects could resonate beyond this particular suit — a successful outcome in this case may turn the class action lawsuit into a popular tool for challenging copyrights.