Business News Labels & Publishers Legal Top Stories

Warner/Chappell settles over Happy Birthday

By | Published on Thursday 10 December 2015


Shortly after it emerged that claims against Warner/Chappell in relation to ‘Happy Birthday’ could go back all the way to 1949, yesterday the publishing major announced it had reached a settlement in the long running legal battle over the copyright status of the popular song.

As previously reported, there were various strands to the legal battle instigated when a film company sued Warner/Chappell claiming that ‘Happy Birthday’ was ‘public domain’ in the US, which would mean the copyright in the song had expired and the major publisher had no right to collect royalties when it was performed or recorded, even though it had done so for decades.

The case centred on the lyrics of the song, with the plaintiffs arguing that: the Hill sisters, who wrote the melody and the song’s original words, which went “good morning to you”, didn’t pen the more famous lyrics; or if they did they at some point abandoned the copyright in them; or if they didn’t, they never transferred ownership of those specific words to their publisher, Summy & Co, a company that was ultimately acquired by Warner in the 1980s.

In September the judge overseeing the case said that the first two arguments would need to be heard in court, but he ruled on the latter point in summary judgement, siding with the plaintiffs and ruling that Warner/Chappell was not the owner of the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics, because there was no evidence that the Hill sisters ever assigned the copyright to Summy back in the early decades of the 20th century.

While Warner/Chappell got busy preparing to appeal that ruling, the plaintiffs in the case began a push to have the judge actually declare ‘Happy Birthday’ public domain. The copyright status of the song was left ambiguous by the summary judgement, in that the judge simply said that, if the song was still in copyright, Warner/Chappell did not own it.

A charity that receives a cut of the royalties generated by ‘Happy Birthday’, the Association For Childhood Education, subsequently came forward and said that – if Warner/Chappell wasn’t the copyright owner – it probably was. The charity was seemingly founded by Patty Hill and is the beneficiary of her estate.

Yesterday’s announcement that a settlement had now been reached was brief. It confirmed that a planned court hearing next week to deal with outstanding matters and damages would now not take place, and that parties on both sides of the dispute had ten days to provide more detailed information about their settlement. Warner/Chappell, meanwhile, told reporters: “While we respectfully disagreed with the court’s decision we are pleased to have now resolved this matter”.

It’s still not clear what all this means for the copyright status of the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics in the US, though sources say the outcome will be that the song is now completely public domain (the melody already is). The song’s copyright status is ambiguous because of the slightly complicated rules in US law regarding the copyright terms of works that were created in the early decades of the last century.

In Europe the simpler life-of-creator-plus-70-years rule applies, meaning that the song (lyrics and melody) is in copyright here until next year. Though, while there may not be the debate around copyright status over here, the question of ownership remains, given the September ruling that Warner/Chappell was never the owner of the lyrics.

Which would mean that, whereas in the US, if the song has long been public domain, it would be past licensees who could claim money back from the Warner publisher, in Europe it would be whoever is deemed the owner of the words, which might be Association For Childhood Education.

All in all, we await more information about this settlement with much interest.