LOS ANGELES, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- A federal judge in California has declared Warner Music's "Happy Birthday to You" copyright invalid, putting the ever-present song into the public domain.
U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled Tuesday in favor of the plaintiffs, a group of independent filmmakers who filed the suit against Warner Music, which has collected up to $50 million in licensing fees for the birthday song since it purchased the copyright in 1988.
King said the evidence presented in the case indicated sisters Patty and Mildred Hill "did not try to obtain federal copyright protection" when they wrote the song in 1889. A copyright on the song was not filed until 1935, when the song was already in the public domain, King said.
The plaintiffs recently brought to light a 1922 songbook containing "Happy Birthday" with no mention of a copyright.
"'Happy Birthday' is finally free after 80 years," Randall Newman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Los Angeles Times. "Finally, the charade is over. It's unbelievable."
"Warner/Chappell has been squeezing money out of a lot of people for a long time," Michael Donaldson, an attorney who previously worked on the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, told The Washington Post. "The song belongs to the American people."
Warner/Chappell, Warner Music's publishing arm, released a statement saying the company is "looking at the court's lengthy opinion and considering our options."
A sketchbook containing the only known manuscript of Mildred Hill's original version of the song, "Good Morning to All," was recently discovered in a collection donated to Kentucky's University of Louisville decades ago.