The Warner Music Group has relinquished its copyright claims to the “Happy Birthday to You” song in a proposed $14 million settlement that was disclosed in court filings Monday, marking the end of a prolonged three-year legal dispute.
Warner’s publishing subsidiary, Warner/Chappell Music, stated in an unsealed document that it will give up its claims to the song and pay $14 million back to “thousands of people and entities” who have paid the company licensing fees to use the popular tune in commercial works, the Washington Times reported. Despite this proposal, the court documents also state that Warner’s attorneys plan to petition a federal judge for roughly $4.6 million to cover their legal costs.
The settlement proposal is pending the approval of U.S. District Judge George H. King, according to the Los Angeles Times. If the agreement is approved, then Warner/Chappell could no longer collect royalties and fees for the use of “Happy Birthday” — ending the company’s approximately $2 million per year royalties accumulations. The preliminary hearing for the settlement’s approval is set for March 14.
“Because defendants have charged for use of the song, untold thousands of people chose not to use the song in their own performances and artistic works or to perform the song in public,” the memorandum stated. “After the settlement is approved, that restraint will be removed and the song will be performed and used far more often than it has been in the past.”
Jennifer Nelson, one of the plaintiffs in the case, had been making a documentary about the song’s origins and history when she was informed that she would have to pay the company $1,500 in order to use it in her film.
“We revealed a dark side to the happy tune. It’s a song that everyone’s familiar with and grew up with, but nobody knew that this song was copyrighted and you had to pay a license for that,” Nelson told the Guardian. “The fact that it was illegally and wrongfully in the clutches of Warner/Chappell really outraged people and now we’ve been able to rectify that situation. So it’s really gratifying.”
The original lawsuit was first filed in 2013 by a group of filmmakers who claimed that the “Happy Birthday” song belonged in the public domain, the Los Angeles Times noted. The tune, which was written by sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill in 1893, was originally titled “Good Morning to All” and included in a children’s music book under the copyright of its publisher. Sometime later in the song’s convoluted history, the well-known “Happy Birthday” lyrics were added, and Warner began collecting royalties for the song after it purchased the copyright from the Hills’ original publisher.
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