Can you imagine being the owner of the most well-known song in the English language?
That distinction used to apply to Warner/Chappell, but for now, the song “Happy Birthday to You” could now belong to everyone thanks to a recent ruling in a copyright battle surrounding the song. The rights to “Happy Birthday to You” were snapped up by Warner/Chapell in 1988 for $22 million.
Since then, the publishing company has raked in over $2 million each year licensing the song out.
That’s right, you used to have to pay big bucks to use the words or melody to one of the most popular songs ever, in a movie, soundtrack or something else being sold, like children’s toys.
At least you used to.
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Last week, a judge ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” is actually in the public domain, because Warner/Chappell never acquired the proper rights to the lyrics of the song in their original acquisition.
The music to the song was originally written as “Good Morning to All” in 1893 by kindergarten teachers Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill and published by the Clayton F. Summy Company.
But Warner claimed that “Happy Birthday to You,” which was a derivative “Good Morning to You,” was created and registered as a different song in 1935, thus giving the song protection until 2030.
The ruling presents an opportunity for students to gain a better understanding of copyright law, especially in this new age of digital media.
“Copyright gives you certain exclusive rights, one of which is the exclusive right to publish a work, make copies of it, and make derivatives of that work,” said Mark Davis, music industry studies instructor at Loyola University.
Ownership of the copyright is treasured, as can be demonstrated by the recent case between Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, who lost a big lawsuit to the family of Marvin Gaye over their song “Blurred Lines.” The Gaye family won a $2 million judgement and half the ownership of the copyright for “Blurred Lines” when it was ruled that they ripped off Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up.”
A few weeks ago, Richard S. Busch, the lawyer who won the verdict for Marvin Gaye’s family was a guest lecturer at Loyola. He explained the importance of copyrights to Professor Davis’ students.
Owning and licensing music copyrights is a multibillion dollar a year business for companies like Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, parent company of Warner/Chappell. Loyola is teaching students how to get a piece of the action.
“One of the things we are teaching our students is to look at it from the view of the copyright owner because one day they are going to be the copyright owner,” Davis said.
Check out a list of the most valuable copyright’s in the history of the music business [as of 2012] by earning:
Happy Birthday To You – Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill – $48 million
White Christmas – Irving Berlin – $38.5 million
You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin – The Righteous Brothers – $33 million
Yesterday – The Beatles – $31.5 million
Unchained Melody – The Righteous Brothers – $29 million
Stand By Me – Ben E. King – $28 million
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town – John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie $26.5 million
Every Breath You Take – The Police – $21.5 million
Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison – $21 million
The Christmas Song – Mel Torme/Nat King Cole – $20 million