Professor Michael Madison Offers Expert Comment to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette On Happy Birthday Copyright Ruling
One of the most well-known and widely sung songs, Happy Birthday, is now in the public domain. Earlier this year Pitt librarians and Pitt Law libarians helped attorneys for the plaintiffs unearth key evidence from a 1927 edition of the "Everyday Song Book" in Pitt's special collections. However, the basis of U.S. District Judge George H. King's ruling on Tuesday did not focus on the book, but focused on the absence of evidence that the predecessor company of Warner/Chappell ever had acquired proper rights.
Speaking to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pitt Law's Innovation Practice Institute faculty director, Michael Madison said, “The judge says that there is no unambiguous evidence that the predecessor got the copyright. Therefore, Warner/Chappell has nothing because it acquired nothing from its predecessor.”
According to the Post-Gazette, the plaintiffs, mostly small documentary producers, believed that the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” published in the 1927 edition of “The Everyday Song Book” — located at Hillman Library in Pitt’s Special Collections Department — was in the public domain because it was published in the book without a copyright. But it was unclear if the composers authorized the publishers to print the lyrics in that book, so the judge moved to other evidence to make his ruling.