L.A. Now

'Happy Birthday' lawsuit: Tentative settlement puts song in public domain

Warner Music Group and others who fought to hold the copyright on "Happy Birthday to You" have given up their claims to the popular song, according to the terms of a proposed settlement deal that signals the end of a contentious three-year dispute.

The proposed deal, which was disclosed Monday in court filings, offers up to $14 million for those who paid licensing fees to use the song.

The lawyers who battled Warner Music and its publishing arm, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., could also see a windfall. In court papers, attorneys said they planned to ask a federal judge for about $4.6 million to cover their legal costs.

The settlement is tentative pending approval by U.S. District Judge George H. King.

 

If the judge signs off on the agreement, Warner/Chappell Music would no longer collect fees to use the song, which by some estimates brought the company as much as $2 million per year in royalties. 

The lawsuit was filed in 2013 by a group of filmmakers who believed the ubiquitous song should be in the public domain. 

The tune, written in 1893 by Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred J. Hill was originally titled "Good Morning to All." The sisters included it in a children's music book and left the copyright with their publisher.

At some point in the song's tangled history, the "Happy Birthday" lyrics were added. In 1988, Warner began collecting royalties for "Happy Birthday" after it purchased the company that had the copyright from the Hill sisters' publisher.

But King, the federal judge, ruled in September that Warner/Chappell and other prior companies never had the right to charge for use of the song.

In December, days before trial, attorneys for all sides in the dispute informed the judge they had settled, but the details of the agreement were not disclosed. The exact terms of the settlement were hammered out during the last week, which featured "almost around the clock" negotiations, lawyers wrote in court papers.

Two other groups related to the Hill family also joined the settlement: the Assn. for Childhood Education International, a designated charity of the Hill family that receives a third of the song's licensing profits, and the Hill Foundation. Both groups argued they were the true owners of the song's copyright.

To be clear, Warner/Chappell and others who claimed to have the copyright did not admit any wrongdoing and denied that the song is in the public domain, according to the provisions of the agreement.

The tentative settlement allows those who paid for use of the song as far back as 1949 to recoup some or all of their money, according to court papers. 

The filmmakers and others who filed the suit have asked for an additional "incentive" payment of $10,000 to $15,000, a customary award for the named parties in class action lawsuits.

A hearing on the preliminary approval of the settlement is scheduled for March 14 at a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.

For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.

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