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That's a relief

You can now sing Happy Birthday for free

Strictly speaking every time you’ve sung it in recent times you’ve been breaching copyright. Not any longer however…

shutterstock_108381335 Shutterstock / Eugene Sergeev Shutterstock / Eugene Sergeev / Eugene Sergeev

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO You”, often considered the most popular song in the world, looks finally set to be free for everyone to sing.

After prolonged legal wrangling, US publisher Warner/Chappell Music has agreed to pay $14 million (€12.4 million) in a class action settlement that would effectively end its claims to the song’s copyright.

The dispute began in 2013 after makers of a low-budget film on the history of the song balked at the $1,500 the publisher demanded for the song’s use.

The filmmakers filed a class action suit on behalf of people who paid to use the song, which became widely known in the United States a century ago and has since spread globally.

In a settlement submitted to a federal court in Los Angeles the publishing house, which is part of the Warner Music conglomerate, agreed to pay $14 million and end its efforts to collect royalties for the song.

“By declaring the song to be in the public domain, the settlement will end more than 80 years of uncertainty regarding the disputed copyright,” the settlement submitted by plaintiffs to the court said.

The deal needs a judge’s approval, which is likely because both sides are in agreement.


While the publisher was not chasing down birthday party revellers to seek payment, it had routinely asked for compensation for films, television shows and recordings seen as making money on the song.

The settlement said that $14-16.5 million represented the estimated amount that Warner/Chappell would have earned through 2030, the earliest date at which its disputed copyright would end.

The filmmakers’ lawyers would pocket one third of the settlement money – $4.62 million — with the rest divided among people who had paid to use “Happy Birthday To You.”

The settlement enables the publisher to avoid a potential trial at which it would risk being ordered to pay far more.

The plaintiffs said they saw the agreement as a victory and decided to settle to avoid further costs.

The filmmakers had partly won the case in September, when a judge ruled that Warner/Chappell did not hold a legitimate copyright to the song.

But he stopped short of declaring the song in the public domain, leaving open the possibility that others may hold the copyright and setting the stage for a trial.

Disputed origins

“Happy Birthday to You” is among the most recognisable songs in history.

Famous performances range from Marilyn Monroe’s sultry rendition for President John F Kennedy to a version performed by NASA’s Curiosity rover to celebrate one year on Mars.

Both sides in the court case generally agreed that the song was put to paper in 1893 by Patty Hill, a kindergarten instructor in Kentucky, with her sister Milfred, although some say the melody came earlier.

Schoolchildren would sing the tune, which was initially entitled “Good Morning to You”. The dispute centered on who put the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics to the melody.

Jessica Hill, another sister, published the lyrics in 1935 in a copyright that was bought decades later by Warner/Chappell, but the plaintiffs countered that the tune had already been widely in public use.

The case is the latest high-profile dispute regarding song copyright.

Last year, a judge controversially ordered Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay more than $7 million (€6.2 million) to the family of Marvin Gaye for alleged similarities between their 2013 smash hit “Blurred Lines” and the late Motown legend’s “Got to Give It Up”.

© – AFP, 2016

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