A US district judge has dealt a blow to one of the world's most infamous copyright claims by ruling that Warner/Chappell Music can no long collect royalties for the song Happy Birthday.

Warner/Chappell started to charge royalties for the song in 1988, when it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Summy Co, which claimed it obtained rights to the song in 1935.

But Judge George King yesterday ruled that the copyright acquired in 1935 was for the piano scoring, rather than for the lyrics. The basic tune had already passed out of copyright.

The original tune was composed by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893 under the name Good Morning to All, later evolving into Happy Birthday to You.

Warner/Chappell asserted that Patty Hill sold the copyright in 1935.

But New York-based Good Morning To You Productions, which is making a documentary about the song, alleged that Summy Co had never acquired the rights to the lyrics and contested that the song had passed into the public domain in the 1920s.

King said in a summary that there was not enough evidence to rule on whether the song had passed into the public domain, but said that Warner’s assertion that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy the right to the lyrics had ‘no support’. He said that Warner had no evidence that a transfer for the lyrics had occurred, whether by oral statement, writing or conduct.

‘The Hill Sisters gave Summy Co the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics,’ he said.

But Mark Owen, a partner at international firm Taylor Wessing specialising in intellectual property, warned that the judgment does not mean the song is now copyright free. 

Owen said: ‘As elements of the song are still potentially within the maximum copyright term it may be the case that someone still owns some rights to it. There are also complex questions as to what the impact of this ruling may be on uses outside the US, so film-makers here should not now rush into using the song without considering the impact of this judgment carefully.’

He added that the song still remains under copyright within the UK and other countries, and copyright ownership to some parts of the song are still valid in the US.

He added: ‘For such a simple song, the Happy Birthday copyright saga encapsulates many of the complexities around copyright and the US approach in particular.

‘Though still within the maximum term of protection a copyright work can enjoy in the US, yesterday’s court decision shows that it is not as easy as that. It explored the separate history of the melody and the later lyrics, of their complex chains of ownership over the years and of the hazards of US requirements to register some copyright.’