Entertainment Law

Author: Juliana Mah & Christina Bulbrook

On June 27, 2016, US federal judge George H. King approved music publisher Warner/Chappell Music’s settlement offer of $14 million in a class action suit that began back in 2013 over the disputed copyright to the world’s most popular song “Happy Birthday to You”.

In the settlement, Warner/Chappell Music agreed to forgo collecting any more fees for the use of the famous song and to pay restitution of up to $14 million to class action members who have paid licensing fees to use the song since September 3, 1949. In addition, the settlement included an order declaring that the song is in the public domain, ending over 80 years of uncertainty regarding the “Happy Birthday to You” song’s disputed copyright.

The judge’s approval of the settlement offer came shortly after the judge ruled in 2015 that the copyright claimed on the song since 1988 by music publisher Warner/Chappell Music and its parent company, Warner Music Group, was invalid. This is a huge blow to Warner/Chappell Music since it is estimated that this music publisher giant collected an estimated $2 million in licensing fees each year from the song.

The class-action lawsuit over the famous tune began with filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was making a documentary about the origins of “Happy Birthday to You” and was asked to pay a $1,500 licensing fee to use the song in her film. Nelson started doing research and said she found evidence that the copyright on the song had either expired many decades ago, or never existed in the first place. This resulted in Nelson filing a lawsuit against Warner/Chappell Music on June 13, 2013 asking the music publisher to not only return the licensing fee she had paid but also all royalties collected by the music publisher from other filmmakers since 2009 (this 2009 date was successfully amended in December 2015 by plaintiffs after the judge permitted a motion to extend the scope of the class action, allowing the plaintiffs to seek damages going all the way back to September 3, 1949).

While those of us who sang happy birthday to friends and family at a birthday party were never in any danger of being pursued for copyright infringement, this landmark decision is a victory for musicians and the motion picture and television industry since Warner/Chappell Music’s control on the song has allowed the company to collect millions of dollars in licensing fees from those seeking to use the song in profit-making enterprises.

This settlement will now permit musicians and film and TV producers to freely utilize “Happy Birthday to You” in their productions instead of the often substituted “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” (which is in the public domain) since the judge’s approval of Warner/Chappell Music’s settlement offer means, in the words of Donahue Fitzgerald LLP (one of the law firms that represented the plaintiffs), “It’s official! Sing it loud, sing it proud, and sing it for free, knowing that you won’t get hit up for royalties.”

This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or an opinion on any issue. If you are interested in receiving additional details on the topic above or advice about specific circumstances, please contact MEP Business Counsel at 604-669-1119.