Happy Birthday to You, one of the most popular songs of all times, will finally be free for all soon. That is, only if the original copyright owners, Warner/Chappell Music’s decision to pay a settlement fee of $14 million to end a decade-long lawsuit is approved by a US court. The money will be distributed among those who paid the licensing fees for the song since 1949.
The settlement, unveiled in federal court in Los Angeles on Monday, would eliminate the music publisher’s claimed ownership of the song. It also specifies that once the settlement is approved by the court, the song will be in the public domain. A hearing is scheduled for March 14.
A group of artists and filmmakers filed a class action lawsuit in 2013 against Warner/Chappell, the music publishing arm of privately held Warner Music Group. In the court filing, the group hailed the settlement as “unquestionably an excellent result”.
Listen to Happy Birthday song here:
“We are pleased to bring this matter to resolution,” a Warner/Chappell spokeswoman said in a statement on Tuesday.
In September, Chief US District Judge George King ruled that Warner/Chappell, the music publishing arm of privately owned Warner Music Group, did not have a valid copyright claim to the song’s lyrics.
The case garnered attention from around the world not only because the tune is so commonly performed, but because many people were not aware it was still under copyright, let alone purportedly owned by a major corporation.
People who sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in their homes or at private gatherings have typically never been at risk of a lawsuit. But when the song was used for commercial purposes, such as in films, Warner demanded payment and took in an estimated $2 million in royalties for such uses each year.
The song has a complicated history reaching back to the 1893 publication of Good Morning to All, a children’s song written by a Kentucky woman named Mildred Hill and her sister, Patty. That melody eventually came to be sung with the familiar Happy Birthday lyrics.
Warner contended its copyright to the lyrics came through the Hill sisters’ publisher that it had acquired. But King said that publisher never obtained the rights to the lyrics and so neither did Warner.