Warner Music doesn't own Happy Birthday in part because "pianos do not sing"

Rupa Marya v. Warner Chappell Music was fought over the copyright status of the song "Happy Birthday to You". The copyright of the melody had already expired [1], so the case came down to whether Warner/Chappell Music owned the copyright specifically on the lyrics.

Sheet music for "Happy Birthday to You"
Sheet music for "Happy Birthday to You"

Unfortunately, the exact copyright registrations were lost, so the judge had to decide what they contained based on indirect descriptions. The central registration was described as covering "piano arrangements", which led to this all-time great quote in the order for summary judgement:

Obviously, pianos do not sing.

Judge George H King [2]
A great moment in legal analysis.
A great moment in legal analysis.

The full reasons are much longer, of course, but the final ruling was that Warner/Chappell Music could not prove that it owned the copyright to the "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics. The order technically did not decide whether the lyrics were under copyright at all, which was a matter of debate [3], but the final judgement incorporated settlement terms that put the song into the American public domain. As far as I can tell, the European copyright to both the "Happy Birthday" lyrics and melody would have been still valid, albeit with disputed ownership, until it expired in 2017.

Meanwhile here in Canada, the song had already passed to the public domain in 1997.

  1. The melody was originally sung with the words "Good Morning to All", and the application to birthdays was not officially published until later. ↩︎

  2. Rupa Marya v. Warner Chappell Music Inc. George H King (2015). ↩︎

  3. Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song. Robert Brauneis (2010). ↩︎