It's settled: Now you can sing “Happy Birthday” (Thinkstock)
It's settled: Now you can sing “Happy Birthday”
Lexile

A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit over whether "Happy Birthday to You" is owned by a music publisher who earned millions by enforcing its copyright. It is one of the best-known and beloved songs in the world. 
 
U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled in September that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. didn't own the lyrics to the song, only some musical arrangements. The judge said the company had no right to charge for its use.
 
A trial was set to begin in Los Angeles. It could have finally decreed whether the lyrics sung to generations of birthday boys and girls around the globe really is in the public domain.
 
Also to be decided at trial was whether Warner/Chappell would have to return any of the licensing fees. Those are estimated at up to $2 million a year. They were collected for use of the song in movies, television shows and other commercial ventures.
 
But King said all parties in the case had agreed to settle. So there will be no trial.
 
"It resolves all issues," said Randall Scott Newman. He is an attorney for one of the plaintiffs.
 
He and other lawyers declined to provide details of the settlement. The agreement is awaiting the judge's approval.
 
However, the previous ruling and the settlement strongly imply that the lyrics will become available for free.
 
Jennifer Nelson was billed $1,500 to use "Happy Birthday to You" in a documentary she is doing on the song's history. She said she is "delighted" with the outcome of the case.
 
"We revealed a dark side to the happy tune," she said. "It's a song that everyone's familiar with and grew up with.  But nobody knew that this song was copyrighted and you had to pay a license for that."
 
"The fact that it was illegally and wrongfully in the clutches of Warner/Chappell really outraged people and now we've been able to rectify that situation. So it's really gratifying," she said.
 
"While we respectfully disagreed with the court's decision, we are pleased to have now resolved this matter," Warner/Chappell said in a statement.
 
The tune, with different lyrics, was written in 1893 by Patty Smith Hill, a Kentucky kindergarten teacher and her sister, Mildred J. Hill. They called it "Good Morning to All."
 
They assigned the rights to that and other songs to Clayton F. Summy.  He copyrighted and published them in a book titled "Song Stories for the Kindergarten."
 
Over the years, the rights passed from the Clayton F. Summy Co. to Birch Tree Group and then to Warner when it bought Birch Tree in 1988.
 
The lawsuit was filed two years ago by musicians and filmmakers who were billed for using "Happy Birthday to You."
 
In his September ruling, King noted that while the tune has long been in the public domain, the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You" have a murkier background. They were mentioned in a 1901 publication but the full lyrics didn't appear in print until 1911.
 
It wasn't until 1930 that Patty Hill claimed to have written the lyrics at the same time that she co-wrote "Good Morning to All."
 
King ruled that Summy Co. never actually acquired the rights to the lyrics - only to piano arrangements of the melody - and thus its successor had no valid copyright.
 
Among other issues the settlement is expected to resolve is a contention that the copyright is owned by two charities that were beneficiaries of the Hill estate. The charities had accepted royalties from Warner/Chappell for more than 20 years.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What made this case so complicated?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (12)
  • collinf-2-bar
    12/16/2015 - 05:54 p.m.

    What made the case so complicated was that so many different companies owned the lyrics at some point. "The tune, with different lyrics, was written in 1893 by Patty Smith Hill, a Kentucky kindergarten teacher and her sister, Mildred J. Hill. They called it 'Good Morning to All.'"
    "They assigned the rights to that and other songs to Clayton F. Summy."
    "Over the years, the rights passed from the Clayton F. Summy Co. to Birch Tree Group and then to Warner when it bought Birch Tree in 1988."

    I didn't know and was surprised to learn that the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You" are copyrighted.,

  • maggiec-3-bar
    12/17/2015 - 09:11 p.m.

    What made this case so complicated was that they had to trace the song back to find out who actually wrote it. For the past couple years the company Warner/Chapell Music claimed that they owned the rights the song "Happy Birthday to You." People weren't allowed to use the song in anything without the rights to use it. In the article, it says "Jennifer Nelson was billed $1,500 to use "Happy Birthday to You" in a documentary she is doing on the song's history. She said she is "delighted" with the outcome of the case." I think that it is good that people are finally able to use the song without worrying that they'll get caught. I bet know we will be seeing it in a lot more things.

  • noahf-3-bar
    12/18/2015 - 11:04 a.m.

    What made this case so complicated was that nobody knew who the copyright to the song belonged to, whether it was still valid and who made the song originally.

    I found it interesting that the company didn't own the lyrics to the song, but only owned a few musical arrangements.

  • carlym-4-bar
    12/18/2015 - 03:21 p.m.

    What made this case so complicated was that the Warner/Chapell company didn't want people to use the song because hey had created it and they deserved to charge the people. So if a movie company wanted to use the song "Happy Birthday" they would have to pay the company an expensive bill. In the article it says, "Jennifer Nelson was billed $1,500 to use 'Happy Birthday to You' in a documentary she is doing on the songs history."
    I enjoyed this article because I didn't know that people were billed when having to use a song that celebrates ones birthday.

  • nariahb-
    12/22/2015 - 01:59 p.m.

    This case was made extremely complicated because it is a song that people sang for a long time now. But now people want to copy the song and make some other song that people won't be able to sing the normal version of "Happy Birthday" because they would only hear the new song and not the old song. If you ask me about it I think that it should be left alone. I believe that this song is just as good as can be. If people want us to sing the song, I don't mind it,just go ahead and sing. All I am trying to say is that leave the song alone (in my choice) and just be on your happy way of making new songs so people can get the new songs stuck in their heads.

  • brysonp-dic
    1/07/2016 - 06:36 p.m.

    I think that not being able to sing Happy Birthday is just insanity. I mean, everybody has sang it a thousand times. I think that since it's such a widely used song, there shouldn't even be a Copyright on it.

  • logandyl0-dil
    1/08/2016 - 01:55 p.m.

    The judge said the company had no right to charge for its use. I agree because I think that this song shouldn't be copyrighted because it is a song that is loved by many and why would you have to pay $2,000,000 just for singing this song for a friend or loved one! Do you think it should be copyrighted?

  • my'asiad-612-
    1/08/2016 - 03:10 p.m.

    What made it so complicated was that in the story it said "Warner/Chappell Music Inc. didn't own the lyrics to the song, only some musical arrangements. The judge said the company had no right to charge for its use. Individuals are not charged for the song. But companies that use it for commercial purposes have had to pay". And another thing that made is so complicated was that they had to retrace and go back in time to figure out which song was the real one because as it said in the story "We revealed a dark side to the happy tune,". "It's a song that everyone's familiar with and grew up with. But nobody knew that this song was copyrighted. And you had to pay a license for that."

  • alexaf-ver
    1/13/2016 - 12:17 p.m.

    I found interesting is that so many people could not sing this song just because of copyright. THey could not put online even if was for someone's birthday.

  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    1/16/2016 - 04:50 p.m.

    It's of sad to see people and companies fight over who owns the copyright to the "Happy Birthday" song. People always want to find ownership in things that really don't need it. This makes me think of the Beatles song "Let it Be." Let the "Happy Birthday" song be.

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