You know those cheesy variations on the “Happy Birthday” song performed by a half-dozen waiters and waitresses that your friends make you suffer through on your birthday? You notice that for all of the birthday parties you have watched on TV and in the movies, you rarely see a family singing “Happy Birthday” to their loved ones as they turn one year older? All of that is about to change… maybe.
Parties recently settled an action related to the copyright on “Happy Birthday.” Terms of the settlement have yet to be disclosed, but they are not expected to undo a federal judge’s recent ruling in the case that the copyright, under which Warner/Chappelle Music and its predecessors have collected licensing fees for more than six decades, is invalid. So, it appears that “Happy Birthday” now officially belongs to all of us.
As discussed in a previous post, Plaintiffs brought suit claiming that the song is in the public domain because Warner/Chappelle had no valid copyright to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics. In September, a federal judge agreed with Plaintiffs and granted summary judgment that Warner/Chappelle Music “do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.” Warner/Chappelle announced that it would seek reconsideration of the court’s order or leave to immediately appeal the ruling.
Shortly after this ruling, plaintiffs sought to expand the class to include anyone from whom Warner/Chappelle had collected licensing fees dating back to 1949. This move created the prospect of substantial damages to be awarded against Warner/Chappelle. Then, last month, the charity organization Association for Childhood Education International, made a competing claim to the rights to use of the song as the heir of others to whom its authorship is attributed.
Rather than fighting this battle in Court, the parties have settled their matter. The financial terms have not been disclosed to the public. The settlement, however, appears to leave in tact the judge’s ruling invalidating the copyright and placing “Happy Birthday” in the public domain. So, while being serenaded by waiters in front of a restaurant full of people will still be embarrassing, at least the song they are singing will be familiar.