Warner/Chappell To Pay $14 Million Settlement In 'Happy Birthday' Copyright Saga

10 February 2016 | 12:29 pm | Staff Writer

The lengthy court case over the world's most famous song comes to a close at last

Almost three years since it first began, the ongoing court battle over the copyright for Happy Birthday has come to an end, with long-time rights-holder Warner/Chappell agreeing to a $US14 million (about $19.8 million) settlement in a class action suit originally brought forth by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson.

As The Hollywood Reporter explains, the historic result will see the industry monolith pay the sum to the members of the class action, with the settlement further stipulating that — in addition to the payout — the song must become property of the public domain.

The result — which effectively frees Warner from further admonishment for having charged people to use something it effectively didn't own for the past god-knows-how-many years — is a far cry from what the company was likely expecting, having previously dismissed evidence that apparently proved the song had no copyright, back in September 2015.

At the time, a 1922 songbook that published the song without a copyright notice was said to prove the company's claims were invalid because "publishing the lyrics without a copyright notice should have forefeited any copyright". Even if that was not the case, the copyright on the songbook had lapsed in 1949, creating ambiguity over the legitimacy of Warner's claims.

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Despite Warner's insistence that the songbook proved nothing, US District Judge George H King — who will sign off on the settlement — concluded that the company did not hold valid copyright over the tune.

Soon after, a 19th-century manuscript was uncovered at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, which was missing its first page, leading to questions over whether its original composers, Mildred and Patty Hill, were "somehow unhappy with the published version" and whether the missing page represented a revision of the song. Ultimately, the agreement to settle was reached in December, with details of the deal only now becoming public.

Nelson initiated the class action in 2013 after being asked to pay a $US1500 licensing fee for her use of Happy Birthday in a documentary about the song. Had the case against it failed, Warner would have retained copyright over Happy Birthday until at least 2030.

As it stands, the plaintiffs in the case will receive just under $US10 million of the total settlement, with the legal team responsible for the win walking away with a hefty $US4.62 million of the cash. 

A memo released by the United States District Court, Central District Of California, Western Division, explains of the decision, "The judicial determination that Happy Birthday is in the public domain also has substantial value. Because Defendants have charged for use of the Song, untold thousands of people chose not to use the Song in their own performances and artistic works or to perform the Song in public.

"This has limited the number of times the Song was performed and used. After the Settlement is approved, that restraint will be removed and the Song will be performed and used far more often than it has been in the past.

"While there is no way to make a reliable estimate of the increase that will result, there can be no dispute that the increase will be substantial."

Read the full text of the settlement memo here.