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Friday
Jun142013

"Happy Birthday": Who Owns the Rights?

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Usually, "Happy Birthday” is a happy, celebratory song that often precedes cake and ice cream. But it might soon become part of a contentious legal battle.

Jennifer Nelson, the president and owner of the New York based Good Morning to You Production Corp., is producing a documentary about the history of “Happy Birthday to You.” One of the scenes in the film includes the actual song. But in order for Nelson to obtain the rights to “Happy Birthday,” the music company Warner/Chappell, a division of Warner Music Corp., required her to pay a licensing fee of $1,500.

On Thursday, Nelson’s production company filed a class action in U.S. District Court in New York to invalidate the Warner/Chappell’s copyright and make the rights available to the public.

According to the complaint, “Warner/Chappell has either silenced those wishing to record or perform ‘Happy Birthday to You’ or has extracted millions of dollars in unlawful licensing fees from those unwilling or unable to challenge its ownership claims.”

“The song has a very interesting history that I wanted to tell.  It is a song that belongs to everyone and everyone in the world knows it and has had occasion to sing it,” Nelson wrote in an email to ABC News.  ”It is shocking that someone claims to own it and others therefore have to pay a fee to use it.  I hope to return it to the public where it rightfully belongs.”

As of Friday afternoon, Warner/Chappell has not filed any response yet, Janine Pollack, one of the lawyers representing the company, told ABC News.

A Warner/Chappell spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by ABC News.

“Happy Birthday” has a long and complex history dating back more than a century. The melody comes from the song “Good Morning to You,” which sisters Mildred and Patty Hill composed at the end of the 19th century.

“No one has claimed even to write the words to the song ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ because it started with ‘Good Morning to All,’ ” Pollack explained. “Somewhere along the lines someone starts singing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ but it wasn’t Warner/Chappell who wrote the words and has the copyright.”

The class action pertains to anyone who paid Warner/Chappell for the rights to “Happy Birthday” since 2009.

“I’m fairly confident people will be interested in this, especially people who have paid the licensing fee,” said Pollack.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio