UMassD Q&A on copyright fight over "Happy Birthday To You" with UMass Law Professor Ralph Clifford

One of the more popular, well-known songs in the world is at the center of a court battle with a federal judge in California set to decide whether a music publisher unlawfully collected licensing fees for the copyright to "Happy Birthday to You."

One of the more popular, well-known songs in the world is at the center of a court battle with a federal judge in California set to decide whether a music publisher unlawfully collected licensing fees for the copyright to "Happy Birthday to You." UMass Law Professor Ralph Clifford discusses the complications surrounding copyright law and the factual issues of "Happy Birthday to You."

The Judge bifurcated the case? What does that mean? How does it impact future claims?

RC: Bifurcation is not uncommon and is not associated with the merits of the case. People submit complicated cases to our courts for decision. It is often easier, particularly if a jury is going to be involved, for the courts to decide different parts of the case in separate hearings. Very typically, for example, a court will have a hearing to determine if the defendant has injured the plaintiff. If it is determined that this did occur, a second hearing is held to determine how much the defendant needs to pay to remedy the damage.

Many lawsuits about the song were filed long ago in the 1930s and 1940s. Why does this song's copyright continue to be litigated?

RC: Copyright law extends rights to songs for a very long time. If you write a song, it will be copyrighted for the rest of your life plus another 70 years. Throughout this period, you are entitled to money if someone else uses it (with some exceptions). If your business is publishing music, it is no surprise that a suit is brought when someone uses your copyrighted music without permission. Of course, with "Happy Birthday," there are questions about whether the music is copyrighted at all.

How strong is the argument that "Happy Birthday" is in the public domain?

RC: The factual issues in the case are complicated. When the song was first published, getting and keeping a copyright was more difficult than it is now. If the formalities were missed, the copyright expired and the song would enter the public domain making it available for use without compensation. There are arguments that this occurred with "Happy Birthday." Similarly, to own a copyright in the first place, you have to be the one who created the song. Again with "Happy Birthday," there are some questions about who wrote it.

About UMass Law Professor Ralph Clifford

After finishing law school at New York Law School, UMass Law Professor Clifford practiced law concentrating in trial practice, real estate, and high technology law. He was also an adjunct faculty member of the University of Bridgeport Law School, teaching Law, Science and Technology. Professor Clifford is a member of the bars of the states of Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts and joined the Southern New England School of Law faculty in 1991.


School of Law, News and Public Information