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Pitt library plays role in 'Happy Birthday to You' lawsuit

| Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, 7:15 p.m.

Entertainers, advertisers and restaurant owners giving out free birthday cake no longer have to pay licensing fees to use the lyrics to one of the most widely sung tunes in the world — “Happy Birthday To You.”

And they can thank the librarians at the University of Pittsburgh.

Library workers found a 1927 songbook in Pitt's archives that led a federal judge in Los Angeles to decide Tuesday that the music publishing company that has been collecting royalties on the song for years does not hold a valid copyright on the lyrics.

“It's wonderful that this piece of American heritage will no longer have a restriction on it,” said Kathy Miller Haines, associate director of Pitt's Center for American Music, which is part of the university's library system.

She and two other librarians found the “The Everyday Song Book” in July in Pitt's Special Collections Department after library administrators received an urgent request from the plaintiffs' attorneys, who knew Pitt had one of the book's earliest copies. The librarians went through the songbook page by page until they found the song, then sent it to the plaintiff's attorneys.

U.S. District Judge George H. King determined the song's original copyright, obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co. from the song's writers, only covered specific piano arrangements of the song and not its lyrics. The basic tune of the song, derived from another popular children's song, “Good Morning to All,” has long been in the public domain.

“This is a really big deal,” Miller Haines said. “It's nice to be part of something that potentially changes the face of what we think about music copyright.”

The lawsuit was filed two years ago by New York-based Good Morning To You Productions Corp., which is working on a documentary tentatively titled “Happy Birthday.” The company challenged the copyright held by Warner/Chappell Music Inc., arguing that the song should be “dedicated to public use and in the public domain.”

“Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the ‘Happy Birthday' lyrics, defendants, as Summy Co.'s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics,” King concluded in his 43-page ruling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Tony Raap is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7827 or traap@tribweb.com.

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