Warner Music Relinquishes Hold on “Happy Birthday” Song in $14 Million Settlement

Warner / Chappell, the publishing arm of Warner Music, has reportedly agreed to a settlement in a lawsuit that challenged its publishing rights to the popular song, “Happy Birthday to You”. Under the terms of the settlement, Warner will pay $14 million and the song will finally enter the public domain, meaning anyone can use it without paying royalties or licensing fees. Back in September, US District Court Judge George King ruled that Warner’s copyright on the song was invalid, but stopped short of declaring the song public domain as Warner Chappell pondered a challenge to the ruling. The settlement will still require judicial approval, and a hearing has been scheduled for March.

“Happy Birthday to You” was initially copyrighted in 1935. Judge King ruled that since that original copyright only pertained to a specific piano arrangement, the current copyright does not apply to the song in a broader sense. The judge also noted that the song’s melody was taken from an 1893 song entitled “Good Morning to All,” a tune that has long been part of the public domain. The copyright for the song changed hands dozens of times before 1988, when Warner Chappel acquired it and began aggressively going after content producers who used the song in their work. The company has reportedly collected more than $50 million in licensing fees in the 28 years its had the copyright, and was expected to earn another $14 to $16.5 million by the time it’s scheduled to expire in 2030. The initial challenge to the copyright came from filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was floored when a bill for $1,500 showed up while she was filming a “Happy Birthday” documentary. Nelson and the other class-action plaintiffs will reportedly receive about a third of Warner’s $14 million settlement, with the rest being split among those who’ve paid licensing fees for the song in the past and meet other criteria of the class action.