In what had to be the weird musical copyright case ever, “Happy Birthday”–a song written in the late 1800s–has finally been declared public domain. That means (a) anyone can perform the song in public, on TV or in films without having to pay royalties; and (b) the end of those made-up birthday songs we hear at restaurants.
It was a long, long fight. The Hollywood Reporter has the final word–we think.
According to a court filing on Monday, music publisher Warner/Chappell will pay $14 million to end a lawsuit challenging its hold on the English language’s most popular song, “Happy Birthday to You.” Additionally, the settlement stipulates a proposed final judgment and order that would declare the song to be in the public domain. The court papers sign the praises of the deal as “truly, an historic result.” U.S. District Judge George H. King will have to sign off on it.
The revelation of the settlement terms comes after King came to the conclusion this past September that Warner and its predecessor didn’t hold any valid copyright to the song and never acquired the rights to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics. At the time, the judge stopped short of declaring that the song was in the public domain, and just before a trial was set to begin in December exploring the history of a song dating back to a 19th century schoolteacher named Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred Hill, the sides reached an agreement.
Warners was expecting to have “Happy Birthday” under copyright until 2030. An IP valuation expert retained by the plaintiffs estimated that the song was to reap between $14 million to $16.5 million.