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Lawsuit Over ‘Happy Birthday’ Lyrics Settled

A settlement has been reached in a documentary filmmaker’s class action claim that the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” are in the public domain and not under copyright protection.

The case drew a wave of publicity in September, when a federal judge ruled that Warner/Chappell Music does not hold a valid claim for the song, after collecting royalties for years when it was performed in movies, TV shows and other productions.

U.S. District Court Judge George King said that all the parties in the case have agreed to settle, and he canceled a bench trial that was scheduled to begin on Dec. 15 that was to have resolved remaining issues. The terms were not immediately disclosed, but more details are expected to be filed with the court.

“While we respectfully disagreed with the Court’s decision, we are pleased to have now resolved this matter,” a spokesman for Warner/Chappell said in a statement.

The settlement is expected to resolve all issues in the case, an attorney for the plaintiffs said, including the status of the Hill Foundation and the Assn. for Childhood Education Intl., beneficiaries to the estate of original author Patty Hill and her sister, Jessica. They had been accepting the royalties from Warner/Chappell for more than 20 years on the belief that the sisters had validly assigned the rights to Summy Co. After King ruled the assignment invalid, the Hill Foundation and ACEI claimed to be the valid owners to the song’s copyrights.

Also expected to be resolved is whether Warner/Chappell would have to pay back royalties from decades ago. The publisher acquired Birch Tree Group in 1988. That company was the successor to the Summy Co.

Filmmaker Jennifer Nelson had been making a documentary about the history of the song, and along with other plaintiffs challenged the the music publisher’s claim to the lyrics.

King ruled that Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the lyrics in 1935, and as successor in interest to that publisher, Warner/Chappell “does not own a valid copyright.”

By some estimates, the publisher collected up to $2 million a year in royalties from the song.

That “Happy Birthday” — one of the most sung songs in the world — was still under copyright protection at all comes as a surprise to many people.

The origin of “Happy Birthday to You” is traced to to a 1893 manuscript for sheet music that included the song “Good Morning to All,” which was written by the Hill sisters. The song was first published in 1893 in “Song Stories for Kindergarten,” and later the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” were adapted to the song’s melody.

King wrote that the record “shows that there are triable issues of fact as to whether Patty wrote the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics in the late nineteenth century and whether Mildred may have a shared interest in them as a co-author.” But “even assuming this is so, neither Patty nor Mildred nor Jessica ever did anything with their common law rights in the lyrics.”

King wrote that Summy Co. acquired the rights to the melody, and piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics. The melody to the song entered the public domain in 1949 at the latest.

King wrote that another issue raised — whether the copyright interest in the lyrics was abandoned — is a triable issue.

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