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THE SCOOP | Warner Seeks Settlement In Historic Happy Birthday Copyright Dispute

By Michael Vincent on February 10, 2016

happy birthday song
Excerpt of “Good Morning to All” a song written in the late 1800s published in a collection of songs titled “Harvest Hymns” (1924).

After raking in millions of dollars in royalty payments for the commercial use of the Happy Birthday Song – which a court ruled in September they don’t own – Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. has offered to settle the case for approximately $14 million. The money is offered in compensation for licensing fees illegally charged since 1988 to the tune of $56 US million.

According to court documents, the tentative settlement allows those who paid for use of the song as far back as 1949 to recoup all or some of their money. However, the proposed settlement that Warner/Chappell is liable is capped at just $14 million.

This would mean Warner/Chappell would be able to keep $42 million in accumulated royalties for what has been called the most well-known song in the world.

According to the provisions of the agreement, Warner/Chappell do not have to admit any fault and maintain their belief that the song is not in the public domain.

The dispute started after a class action lawsuit was filed by documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was in the process of making a film about the origins of the Happy Birthday song. Warner sought a $1,500 licensing fee for the use of the song in the film. Nelson refused to pay the fee, citing Warner/Chappell had no legal right to the song and took the company to court to prevent the company from collecting it.

In September 2015, U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled Warner’s claim to the song and lyrics as legally “invalid”. The judge was swayed after hearing expert testimony showing the song was based on a tune written by Patty and Mildred Hill written in 1893, “Good Morning to All”. It was later published by Clayton F. Summy Co. and included in a song book for children.

The origin of the lyrics was less apparent, but musicologists were able to track down the first known use of the Happy Birthday to You lyrics to an educator’s journal, published in 1901. The lyrics as we know them today were officially published in 1911, making it legally in the public domain since 1981. Despite this, Warner/Chappell is still collecting and charging a royalty fee.

Warner/Chappell’s connection to the legal rights of came after they acquired Clayton F. Summy Co., and began collecting licensing fees in 1988. Over 28 years, they received approximately $56 million in licensing fees.

Nelson’s legal team are expected to ask a federal judge for about $4.6 million to cover their legal costs, on top of the $14 million settlement.

As members of the class action suit, the filmmakers have asked for a customary award of $10,000 to $15,000 in additional payments.

Preliminary approval of the settlement is expected at a scheduled hearing on March 14, 2016, in Los Angeles.

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Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is the Editor-in-chief Ludwig Van and CEO of Museland Media. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. He has worked as a senior editor for over fifteen years and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
Michael Vincent
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