The English language’s most popular song “Happy Birthday to You” just entered the public domain. Warner Music has paid $14 million to settle a lawsuit challenging its copyright over the popular song. While Warner argues that its 1935 copyright registration should be entitled to a presumption of validity, and has charged for the use of the song — reaping an estimated $50 million in licensing fees over the years, it has acquiesced to the $14 million judgement. If the copyright had been judged to be valid, Warner would have held the copyright to the song until 2030, but by agreeing to the terms of this settlement Warner is allowed to escape going to trial to determine whether it should be punished for collecting licensing fees for many years.

The class action lawsuit began in 2013, when a film company creating a documentary on the “Happy Birthday to You” song refused to pay the licensing fee, arguing that the song was in the public domain and could be traced back to its 19th century origins. Control of the song, created by a schoolteacher and her sister in 1893, was transferred to Clayton Summey and the song was sung in classrooms in subsequent decades, as well as being published in a songbook. Concerning the lawsuit, the film company stated it had “irrefutable documentary evidence, some dating back to 1893, [which] shows that the copyright to ‘Happy Birthday,’ if there ever was a valid copyright to any part of the song, expired no later than 1921 and that if defendant Warner/Chappell owns any rights to ‘Happy Birthday,’ those rights are limited to the extremely narrow right to reproduce and distribute specific piano arrangements for the song published in 1935.”

Given that Warner has charged for the use of the song, many performers decided not to use the song in their performances and creative works. With the advent of the song’s release to the public domain, it will be interesting to see how many more performers will be willing to sing “Happy Birthday to You.”

–Erin Webb

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