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9 February 2016, 13:48
Warner Music has reportedly agreed to a court settlement that will place 'Happy Birthday' in the public domain following a three-year legal battle with a filmmaker.
The settlement includes a $14m payment to reimburse people who have paid licensing fees for the song.
Warner and the other parties who claimed copyright of Happy Birthday have not admitted any wrongdoing – nor have they accepted that the song is in the public domain. However, the Los Angeles Times reports, people who have paid for use of Happy Birthday as far back as 1949 will be entitled to claim back some of their money.
The tune of Happy Birthday is believed to have come from a song called Good Morning to All composed by Patty and Mildred J Hill in 1893 – although even this is disputed. Nobody knows when the lyrics to Happy Birthday were added to the song, but it had happened by 1912. The belief that the song was in copyright is famously the reason why in most films and TV series, people celebrating their birthday are normally serenaded with For He's a Jolly Good Fellow, which *is* in the public domain.
Warner bought the company that claimed the copyright to Happy Birthday in 1988 and began to claim licensing fees estimated at up to $2m per year.
The current class action lawsuit was brought by film director Jennifer Nelson in 2013, after she was charged $1,500 to license Happy Birthday in a documentary she was making about the song. The judgment, should it be confirmed, will make for a happy ending to her film.
We’ll know more about whether the settlement has been confirmed at a court hearing in Los Angeles scheduled for 14 March.