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Happy Birthday Copyright Appeal

Greedy Label Gives Up – “Happy Birthday” Song Rights; Iconic Tune Will Become Public Domain

It’s as iconic and American as eating apple pie, cooking a turkey for thanksgiving or setting up a Christmas tree. Whenever a person we love has a birthday celebrating, we intrinsically all know that the song we sing to them is “Happy Birthday.”

Apparently, however, we’ve all been infringing on the rights of a greedy record label this entire time. Were we to be called due on our pending royalty payments, perhaps each of us would owe a nickel for each year we’ve lived since the song was supposedly copyrighted.

But this label will not be able to file a national class action lawsuit against the greater population. Nor will it be able to further add calamity to a holiday favorite.

Nope. Instead, the major label and publisher Warner/Chappell will be forced to pay out $14 million to end a lawsuit that challenged its rights to the song “Happy Birthday.”

Take that, all-powerful record label gods.

In addition, and as karma would dictate, the song has further been ordered by judgment to become public domain. The man you can thank? U.S. District Judge George H. King, whom he, along with the court, says that this settlement represents a “historic result.”

Basically, the court case went like this. Film director Jennifer Nelson was creating a documentary about the song but was asked to pay a licensing fee to the tune of $1,500 in order to do so. In response, she decided to sue Warner so that nobody would ever have to pay these outrageous fees again. Nelson contested that the song appeared in early children’s textbooks and was so aged that it could only be considered public domain.

On the other side, Warner was under the presumption that they retained the copyright on the song until 2030 (the original was filed in 1935). During this time, they’d make as much as $16 million more in licensing fees.

A court memorandum found:

“The judicial determination that ‘Happy Birthday’ is in the public domain also has substantial value. Because Defendants have charged for use of the Song, untold thousands of people chose not to use the Song in their own performances and artistic works or to perform the Song in public. This has limited the number of times the Song was performed and used. After the Settlement is approved, that restraint will be removed and the Song will be performed and used far more often than it has been in the past. While there is no way to make a reliable estimate of the increase that will result, there can be no dispute that the increase will be substantial.”

Interestingly enough, last year the song was in court because the song’s lyrics were contested. They were traced back to a 19th century schoolteacher named Patty Smith Hill. But before a ruling could be reached, the suing parties arrived at an undisclosed agreement.

Warner gets off relatively easy here – unlike the countless others they’ve sued for copyright violations or illegal downloads over the years. And they disagree that they no longer hold the 1935 patent, too, but have agreed to honor the judgement. How nice of you, record execs.

Under the settlement terms, a third of the $14 million due will be repaid to people who had previously spent money licensing the song. All told, over $50 million was tendered in licensing fees to-date.

So Warner still makes out with the lion’s share at $36 million. Not too shabby an investment.

The next time you sing “Happy Birthday” do not forget: it’s apparently a 100-hundred-year-old, $50 million blockbuster single.

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