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Judge Weighs Final Approval of ‘Happy Birthday’ Lawsuit Settlement

A federal judge will decide whether to give the final sign off to the settlement of a class action lawsuit challenging Warner/Chappell Music’s claim to the song “Happy Birthday to You” after a group of plaintiffs contended that it is in the public domain.

U.S. District Judge George King will consider the settlement of the case that calls for a $14 million fund to compensate those who licensed the song from the music publisher.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys are seeking $4.62 million in attorneys’ fees, a figure that has been challenged by the defendants as excessive. But the class action attorneys say that it is justified given their work on the complex case and the momentous nature of the decision.

In September, King 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.

The settlement claims are being separated into two periods — those who paid license fees from Sept. 3, 1949, to June 13, 2009, and those who paid since then.

The settlement also includes 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.

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

Marya was expected to perform the song outside the courthouse after the settlement hearing.

Warner/Chappell acquired Birch Tree Group in 1988. That company was the successor to the Summy Co.

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.”

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.” The lyrics to “Happy Birthday” were later adapted to the song’s melody.

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 granted preliminary approval to the settlement in March.

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