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'Happy Birthday to You' goes to court

| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:27 p.m.
The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
A sign in a Louisville park in June 2013 honors Patty and Mildred Hill. They wrote a ditty in the 1890s for Patty’s kindergarten students: “Good Morning to You/ Good Morning to You/ Good Morning Dear Teacher /Good Morning to All.”

Every 5-year-old knows it. It is the most frequently sung song in the English language, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, surpassing the works of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles, says the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

It has been sung in 143 movies, translated into at least 18 languages and used in ads to sell everything from insurance to margarine.

It's “Happy Birthday to You.”

Was one of the world's most popular songs really written by Louisville, Ky., sisters in the 1890s?

That question may finally be settled, courtesy of a lawsuit filed last week in federal court in New York by a documentary filmmaker challenging the tune's copyright.

Good Morning to You Productions, which is making a movie about the song's history, is asking the court to declare the song in the public domain and force Warner/Chappell Music Inc. — the world's third-largest music publisher — to return millions of dollars in licensing fees it has collected from thousands of companies and individuals who have publicly used or sung “Happy Birthday.”

“Happy Birthday” generates an estimated $2 million a year in licensing fees, part of which goes to a children's education organization designated by the Hill family. The sisters have no surviving family members.

Movie company president Jennifer Nelson's lawyers say they have “irrefutable documentary evidence, some dating to 1893,” showing that if Warner/Chappell owns the right to anything, it is only to a couple of long-forgotten piano arrangements for “Happy Birthday” published in 1935.

James Steven, a spokesman for Warner Music Group, which owns the music publisher, said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation.

If Warner/Chappell Music prevails, it will be able to continue collecting fees until 2030, when the disputed copyright expires, from anyone who wants to publicly perform the song or use it on television or in movies.

George Washington University law school professor Robert Brauneis, who may be the world's leading scholar on “Happy Birthday,” says Warner can only win if it proves that Mildred and Patty Hill wrote the song.

And Brauneis, who spent two years researching its copyright, said that while both were remarkable women — Mildred was later a renowned musicologist and Patty an esteemed professor at Columbia University Teachers College — there is “scant” evidence that they did.

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