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Judge Rules "Happy Birthday" Song Copyright Is Not Valid

Warner/Chappell Music has claimed the lucrative copyright for "Happy Birthday To You" for decades, reportedly bringing in millions each year.

Last updated on September 22, 2015, at 10:35 p.m. ET

Posted on September 22, 2015, at 8:54 p.m. ET

Roland Weihrauch / AFP / Getty Images

Thomas Lange holds a birthday cake for young dolphins on Aug. 31, 2012, in Duisburg, Germany.

You're a lot more likely to hear "Happy Birthday to You" in movies and TV shows after a federal judge on Tuesday ruled that the song is in the public domain and not copyrighted by a music company.

The ruling — from Judge George King in California — was the latest development in a 2013 lawsuit against Warner/Chappell Music. The company reportedly has been collecting millions of dollars in annual licensing fees from the song, but the judge ruled that the publisher only has rights to specific arrangements, not to "Happy Birthday to You" itself.

Attorney Mark Rifkin, who represents the plaintiffs in the case, told BuzzFeed News "we’re extremely pleased with the result."

"We’re gratified that Judge King has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs," he added.

The song known today as "Happy Birthday to You" dates back to the late 1800s, when the melody was set to different lyrics, according to court documents. The origins of the modern lyrics, according to the documents, are "less clear," but were first published in full in a 1911 book.

In 1935, a company registered a copyright for "two works entitled 'Happy Birthday to You,'" the documents state. Warner/Chappell Music eventually acquired that copyright in 1988, and has since claimed to own the song.

As a result, film and television producers had two options: use a substitute, like "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow," or pay substantial licensing fees. Filmmaker Steve James chose the latter option for his 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, reportedly paying $5,000 to include a scene during which his subjects sang the song.

Rifkin told BuzzFeed News it's not entirely clear how much money Warner/Chappell Music was collecting from the song, but widely shared figures put it in the neighborhood of $2 million a year. He added that in the coming phases of the case attorneys will find out exactly how much the song was bringing in.

The class action lawsuit that produced Tuesday's ruling began when documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson was told she would have to pay $1,500 to use "Happy Birthday to You." The suit claimed that the song was actually in the public domain.

According to Rifkin, the "smoking gun" in the case turned up when Warner/Chappell Music handed over documents that included a publication of the song from the early 1920s. That publication predates the 1935 copyright.

The final result was that the judge ruled Warner/Chappell Music's copyright extends only to specific arrangements, not to the song itself.

Rifkin said the next phase in the case will be determining whether or not Warner/Chappell Music has to pay back the money it collected over the years from exercising the copyright.

Representatives for Warner/Chappell Music could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.