The next time you feel compelled to sing "Happy Birthday to You" to a friend or loved one in a restaurant or some other place of business, feel free: You actually won't get sued.
After a long, strange trip through the court system, the most famous song in the world is finally entering the public domain. The music publisher Warner/Chappell agreed in court papers filed Monday to settle a class action lawsuit over “Happy Birthday to You,” a song to which it had claimed to own the copyright for decades. Warner/Chappell will pay the defendants $14 million, and a judge will issue a final order that will release the song into the public domain, which means anyone can use the song however they want, without paying any licensing fees.
In their suit, the plaintiffs, including a pair of documentary filmmakers making a film about the song’s history, argued the copyright Warner/Chappell owned did not cover “Happy Birthday to You” but a different song with an identical melody, “Good Morning to All.” Warner/Chappell had purchased those rights in 1988 from a music publisher, Birch Tree Music Co., which had acquired it from the Clayton F. Summy Co.
Summy, in turn, had acquired those rights in the 19th century from Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill, two sisters who sold “Good Morning to All” to Summy in exchange for a cut of sales of a songbook. "Good Morning to All" was popular, and at some point, the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You,” which neither the sisters nor Summy had written, seemed to latch on to the melody of "Good Morning," giving the publishers the impression that they were within their rights to demand licensing fees from anybody who used the song in any commercial context.
A judge ruled last September that Warner/Chappell’s copyright claim to the song was invalid. It had been appealing that ruling when Monday’s settlement was reached.
While it might seem improbable that a company could make any meaningful income licensing a song like this, “Happy Birthday to You” was big business. Warner/Chappell, and Birch Tree and Summy before them, spent the entire 20th century collecting licensing fees from everybody from film and television producers to restaurant owners. An intellectual property valuation expert hired by the plaintiffs estimated that Warner/Chappell could expect to earn more than half a million dollars per year licensing the song for use in various commercial contexts through 2030, when Warner/Chappell originally expected its copyright to expire.
None of this, of course, has had any effect on the fact that every man, woman and child in the Western world knows the song, sings it every year and expects that they might hear someone sing it to them too. What it will change, however, is how often we hear it in film, on television and on the radio, and it will likely bring an end to film and television producers' twisting their productions into absurd shapes to avoid performing "Happy Birthday" on the air. Sadly, it will also probably end the run of people like Stephen Colbert making up their own weird versions of the song to avoid paying a licensing fee.
“While there is no way to make a reliable estimate of the increase [in performances] that will result, there can be no dispute that the increase will be substantial," a memorandum supporting the settlement reads.