“Happy Birthday” Song Settlement To Pay Out $14 Million To People Who Paid To Use Song

Last year, a decades-old battle over the rights to one of the most famous songs in the world finally came to an end when a federal judge ruled that the “Happy Birthday” song is in the public domain, meaning that its publisher, Warner/Chappell, has been improperly charging hefty sums for its use. The terms of a settlement in the case show that Warner will now fork over up to $14 million to people who should not have had to pay to use the song.

Just a quick catch-up for those who haven’t been following the ins-and-outs of this case. In 2013, the filmmakers behind Happy Birthday, a documentary about the song’s history, sued Warner to recover the $1,500 they paid for its use in the film.

The filmmakers had turned up what they believed to be the “proverbial smoking-gun” that proved the publisher did not hold copyright for the song’s lyrics; at best, Warner could claim copyright over just a particular piano arrangement for the song, the filmmakers claimed.

The tune was originally created around 1893, when sisters Mildred and Patty Hill penned a song called “Good Morning To You,” which was subsequently printed in song books by publisher Clayton F. Summy. The copyright on “Good Morning” expired in 1949.

Meanwhile, the earliest publication of the words for “Happy Birthday” were printed in a 1911 song book called The Elementary Worker and His Work. No author was credited, though the book mentioned that the song was to be sung to the tune of “Good Morning.”

After the song grew in popularity — appearing in multiple films and a stage play without permission from the supposed authors — Summy was granted copyright for “Happy Birthday” in 1935. And, thanks to the lobbying of Disney, copyright law has been revised (and will continue to be revised to protect Mickey Mouse) so that most things copyrighted after 1923 still haven’t entered the public domain.

But the court ruled that the evidence showed that Summy (which was acquired by Warner in 1988 for $15 million) should never have been granted copyright, that the Hill sisters had only granted him “a number of licenses” for “various piano arrangements” for “Good Morning” and “Happy Birthday.”

“Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics,” Warner/Chappell does not “own a valid copyright” on the birthday song, wrote the judge, who noted that the song’s authors never made any attempt to protect the lyrics of for the song, “even as Happy Birthday became very popular and commercially valuable.”

After the judge’s ruling, Warner and the filmmakers reached a settlement deal that would finally put the song back into the public domain where it belongs (even though Warner still contends it does not) and provide some measure of financial redress for people who were improperly charged for its use.

In a Feb. 8 court filing [PDF], Warner has agreed to set up a fund that will pay out claims totaling up to $14 million.

Of that amount, a maximum of $6.25 million is earmarked for claimants who paid to use the birthday song after mid-June 2009. The remainder of the money will be used to cover claims going back all the way to 1949. Claimants in either group should expect to only recoup a fraction of what they paid to Warner and the various other publishers of the song over the years. As usually happens in a class action, the named plaintiffs will likely receive more. In this case, they are asking for between $10,000 and $15,000.

But if the settlement is approved, it’s the lawyers who will come out with a real birthday gift on this one. The lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking $4.6 million from Warner to cover their costs of the case.

[via The L.A. Times]