‘Happy Birthday’ Copyright Case Reaches a Settlement

10 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Lawsuit Over ‘Happy Birthday’ Lyrics Settled.

A settlement has been reached in a documentary filmmaker’s class action claim that the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” are in the public domain and not under copyright protection. The case drew a wave of publicity in September, when a federal judge ruled that Warner/Chappell Music does not hold a valid claim for the song, after collecting royalties for years when it was performed in movies, TV shows and other productions.

District Court Judge George King said that all the parties in the case have agreed to settle, and he canceled a bench trial that was scheduled to begin on Dec. 15 that was to have resolved remaining issues. The terms were not immediately disclosed, but more details are expected to be filed with the court. “While we respectfully disagreed with the Court’s decision, we are pleased to have now resolved this matter,” a spokesman for Warner/Chappell said in a statement.

They had been accepting the royalties from Warner/Chappell for more than 20 years on the belief that the sisters had validly assigned the rights to Summy Co. The origins of “Happy Birthday” date to 1893 with the publication of “Good Morning to All,” a song with the same tune but different lyrics that was written by Mildred Hill and her sister Patty, a kindergarten teacher in Kentucky.

Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson filed suit in 2013 after she was billed $1,500 to use the composition in a film she planned to make about the song’s history. Warner/Chappell — which acquired the company that previously claimed ownership of the song — argued that the tune was given legal copyright protection in 1935 and the publisher has the right to collect fees on the song. (©2015 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. Warner, which had owned the song since 1988, traced its copyright claim to registrations made in 1935 by the Hill sisters’ original publisher, the Clayton F. The terms have not been disclosed, but a person with knowledge of the settlement said the entire case addressing the validity of the copyright and potential damages owed has been resolved and there will be no further appeals. The stakes were raised earlier this week when King left the door open for plaintiffs to make claims on back royalties paid to Warner, Birch Tree and the Summy Co. dating to 1949.

In a twist to the case, the Association for Childhood Education International, a nonprofit group that was co-founded by Patty Hill and has collected a large portion of the song’s royalties, filed a motion last month arguing that if Warner did not control the copyright to “Happy Birthday,” then it did. In a ruling filed Monday, the judge gave the plaintiffs the go-ahead to file a claim based on that timeline, but said he would determine later whether, if the filmmakers prevailed, Warner would have to pay damages back that far.

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