Who owns ‘Happy Birthday?’ Lawsuit seeks return of millions

NEW YORK — You may not know it, but you could owe Warner/Chappell Music thousands of dollars from all the birthday parties you’ve attended in your life.

A federal lawsuit seeks to change that.

Warner/Chappell Music claims to own the copyright to the 120-year old, 16-word song that is widely credited with being the best known piece of music in the English language. That means anyone who performs the song publicly risks a $150,000 fine if they don’t agree to pay a fee to the music group.

While the company doesn’t actually come after private individuals for singing the song to their 3-year-olds, it technically could. And it does demand money anytime the song is sung on a television show or movie.

cakeGood Morning To You Productions, which is a making a documentary film about the song, filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to have the song returned to the public domain. It argues the copyright on the song expired in 1921, and that it should not have been forced to pay $1,500 for the rights to use the song in its documentary.

Warner/Chappell Music is the music publishing arm of Warner Music Group. It claims on its Web site to own the copyright to more than 1 million songs.

According to the suit, the song was written by Mildred and Patty Hill and sold to Clayton Summy in 1893 for 10% of the retail sales of the sheet music. A company that Summy founded was eventually purchased by Warner Music Group in 1998, according to the suit. It argues that if Warner/Chappell owns any copyright, it’s on a very limited piano arrangement published in 1935, not on the song itself.

For more on this CNN Money story, click here.

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