Music publisher Warner/Chappell has decided to drop its lawsuit challenging its control over the English language’s most popular song, “Happy Birthday to You.”
Warner Music Group originally expected to hold “Happy Birthday” under copyright until 2030. It was expected the song would be worth between $14 million to $16.5 million.
Last fall, U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled the song’s original copyright, obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co. from the song’s writers and bought for $15 million US in 1988 by Warner/Chappell Music Inc., only covered specific piano arrangements of the song and not its lyrics.
The move paves the way for King to make the song public domain, something he almost did last fall.
The basic Happy Birthday tune, derived from the children’s song, Good Morning to All, has long been in the public domain. What King’s decision did was make the song in its entirety fair game for use.
Warner’s will pay $14 million as part of a settlement to end the lawsuit. The deal will still require King’s approval.
The settlement brings an abrupt end to a class action lawsuit brought by film director Jennifer Nelson, who was making a documentary about “Happy Birthday” and was asked to pay a $1,500 license fee. Nelson sued Warner’s to stop them from forcing film and TV producers to pay the fee in the future. They argued since it appeared in early 20th century children’s textbooks had to be in the public domain because of general publication, abandonment or the length of the copyright term.
The same issue has not presented itself in Canada and copyright experts say the ruling down south shouldn’t have any impact on private party-goers and well-wishers.
Canada’s Copyright Act spells out the complex nature of copyright use in more public forms but the act is filled with plenty of exceptions.
(songsheet caption courtesy of court filing from Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP)