NEW YORK: A settlement has been reached in a US lawsuit with Warner/Chappell Music over the copyright to Happy Birthday to You that will put one of the world’s most recognisable songs in the public domain, stated court papers released on Wednesday.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed in the papers announcing the settlement, but they did put an end to the class-action lawsuit filed in 2013 by a group of artists and film-makers who had sought a return of millions of dollars from the company for using the song.
Once the settlement is finalised, the song will be in the public domain, a source said. That means it will be free for all to use without fear of a lawsuit.
In September, Chief US District Judge George King in Los Angeles ruled that Warner/Chappell, the music publishing arm of privately owned Warner Music Group, did not own a copyright to the Happy Birthday song lyrics.
“While we respectfully disagreed with the court’s decision, we are pleased to have now resolved this matter,” Warner/Chappell said in a statement. An attorney for the artist, Mark Rifkin, said in an email they were pleased with the settlement but declined to provide further details.
The case garnered attention from around the world not only because the tune is so frequently performed, but also because many people were not aware it was still under copyright, let alone purportedly owned by a major corporation.
The song has a complicated history dating 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 the publisher never obtained rights to the lyrics and so neither did Warner.
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 has been used for commercial purposes, such as in films, Warner has enforced its rights, and raked in an estimated $2 million in annual royalties for years.