Warner Music’s publishing wing Warner/Chappell has settled a lawsuit challenging its hold on “Happy Birthday to You” for $14 million, paving the way for the song to finally enter the public domain, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The settlement comes after United States District Judge George H. King ruled in September that Warner/Chappell’s copyright on the song was invalid. The rights to “Happy Birthday” had previously changed hands frequently before Warner/Chappell scooped it up in 1988 and began aggressively charging royalties for its use in TV shows and movies.
King, however, decided that their copyright was not valid because the original 1935 copyright of “Happy Birthday” applied only to a specific piano arrangement. In addition, “Happy Birthday to You” borrows its melody from “Good Morning to All,” the 1893 song, which has long been in the public domain.
At the time, however, King did not declare “Happy Birthday” to be in the public domain. Warner/Chappell was mulling a challenge to the ruling and a new trial delving into the history of the song — written by sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill — was scheduled to begin in December when the two sides reached an agreement. Furthermore, the settlement only stipulates a proposed final judgement and official order that would make the song free for all. A hearing on the settlement is scheduled for March.
Warner/Chappell had expected to hold on to the rights to “Happy Birthday” until 2030, during which time it was estimated the song would bring in between $14 million and $16.5 million. By settling, the publishing giant was also able to avoid a trial to determine whether it should be punished for collecting fees on the song for over 25 years. It’s estimated Warner/Chappell has collected more than $50 million in licensing fees.
The initial class action suit against Warner/Chappell was brought by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was making a documentary about “Happy Birthday” when she was slapped with a $1,500 licensing fee. Lawyers for the plaintiffs will seek a third of the $14 million fee, while the rest will be divided among those who paid the proper fees for “Happy Birthday” in the past and met the other criteria of the proposed class.