Bad news for “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”: A judge ruled on Tuesday that Warner/Chappell Music does not hold a valid copyright over the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You, potentially clearing the way for filmmakers to use the song free of charge.
According to the court documents obtained by EW, U.S. District Judge George H. King wrote in his opinion that “because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, [Warner/Chappell], as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”
The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed in 2013 by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who is working on a documentary about its history, according to Billboard. King ruled that filmmakers should be granted summary judgment.
The tune — written by kindergarten teacher Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred— was originally called “Good Morning to All” and was published in the sheet music book Song Stories for Children in 1893, but according to the documents, the lyrics to the song did not appear in print until they were published in the 1911 book, The Elementary Worker and His Work, which did not credit anyone with authoring the lyrics.
The sisters assigned rights to Clayton Summy’ production company. Warner/Chappell has argued that the company’s registrations on “Happy Birthday” covered arrangement as well as lyrics, but in his opinion on Tuesday, King wrote, “The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics.”
While it’s unclear just how “Good Morning to All” became “Happy Birthday to You,” in an interview with NPR earlier this month, University of Louisville library director James Procell, who has access to the Hill sisters’ notes and sketchbooks, shared his theory.
“Mildred would compose the songs, Patty almost always wrote the words,” he said. “Patty, who was a kindergarten teacher, would take the songs to her class, try them out, and if the kids had trouble singing a particular note — or it was too high or too low or the rhythm was too complicated — she would bring the songs back to Mildred, and Mildred would revise them… So it’s possible that the manuscript version that we have is Mildred attempting to simplify it a little bit and make it a little bit easier to sing.”
In a statement to EW, a spokesperson for Warner/Chappell Music said “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”