Warner To Pay $14 Million In 'Happy Birthday' Settlement; Plaintiffs Ask For Declaration That Song Is In Public Domain

from the finally-put-all-this-litigious-BS-to-rest dept

A large settlement is on the way in the “Happy Birthday” lawsuit. Eriq Gardner of the The Hollywood Reporter has the news:

According to a court filing on Monday, music publisher Warner/Chappell will pay $14 million to end a lawsuit challenging its hold on the English language’s most popular song, “Happy Birthday to You.”

This is indeed a large payoff, one that indicates Warner/Chappell is not willing to test the merits of its case in front of a jury. The merits of the case, of course, are pretty much some random assertions with little documentation to back them up, but assertions that have, nonetheless, allowed Warner to obtain an estimated $50 million in licensing fees over the years. The $14 million Warner will pay is roughly in line with what it expected to make during the remaining years of the copyright term.

Warners was expecting to have “Happy Birthday” under copyright until 2030. An IP valuation expert retained by the plaintiffs estimated that the song was to reap between $14 million to $16.5 million in the next 15 years.

$4.62 million will be headed to the plaintiffs’ attorneys with the rest being split among qualifying members of the class. But what’s far more interesting is what the plaintiffs have asked the judge to approve.

The Settlement includes an express agreement by Defendants and the Intervenors to forego collecting any more fees for use of the Song, saving the Settlement Class millions of dollars. In addition, if approved by the Court, by declaring the Song to be in the public domain, the Settlement will end more than 80 years of uncertainty regarding the disputed copyright.

As it stands now, the ownership of the song is still up in the air. Warner doesn’t own it but no definitive declaration has been made as to who holds the rights. Lots of people made the assumption that Warner’s lack of ownership = public domain, but that’s not what the court has determined to this point. If the court pursues this — and the information compiled to this point points to this conclusion — we could see “Happy Birthday” finally remanded to the public domain.

If the court decides this isn’t going to be part of the agreement, the song will still reside in legal limbo. All anyone will know for sure is that Warner won’t be coming after them for using the song. But the heirs of Patty and Jessica Hill — the sisters who wrote the lyrics — might. The charity run by the heirs has already entered a motion to intervene, claiming if Warner doesn’t own, then it does. If the judge declares the song to belong to the public domain, that’s $14-16 million the heirs won’t be collecting. It might go the plaintiffs’ way, considering the judge’s decision suggested the Hill’s abandoned the copyright years ago (and may not have actually written the lyrics, either). There’s a substantial amount of money at stake here and it’s highly unlikely the Hills’ heirs will let it go without a fight — even if it’s nowhere near certain they have any claim to the copyright at all.

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Companies: good morning to you, warner/chappell

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Comments on “Warner To Pay $14 Million In 'Happy Birthday' Settlement; Plaintiffs Ask For Declaration That Song Is In Public Domain”

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Anonymous Coward says:

so why not ‘stick it to Warner’ in the same way it would/does when the shoe is on the other foot? charge them $150,000 per infringement, multiplied by the number of years, multiplied by any number that can be pulled out of your ass, just as it would have done and arrive at an answer so outlandish, it belies comprehension? giving Warner a taste of it’s own medicine could have been the best thing that could ever have happened to it. it would perhaps have made it realise exactly how ridiculous it is when suing others!!

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Because if it’s in the public domain, then what they’re doing is not infringement, so those rules don’t apply.

And giving them a taste of their own medicine only justifies the law and the outrageous fines. It won’t make them want to change it. That’s how they want the law even if it bites them from time to time.

surfer (profile) says:

Re: Re: copyfraud

copyfraud; the illegal pursuant of a licensing demand that was not owned by the ‘alleged’ copyright holder. theft from the public domain in direct effort to feloniously support a business model, each count of licensing demands should be met with a $150,000 statutory damages for each and every license pursued during the terms of the dispute.

evidence the work was elevated to the public domain in 1927 @ ~ $20 million / yr profit, using real facts and not hollywood accounting numbers, I would say Warner Bros is on the hook for $1.78 billion, with a ‘B‘ towards a pool fund where everyone who licensed the song since 1927 can demand from.

live by copyright, be bankrupted by copyfraud. they should just double the fine, because copyfraud.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Re: copyfraud

Well well well, our dearly beloved commenter Whatever has yet to put in an appearance to opine. Where are the other maximalist apologists?

This case has done more to cement the Pirate Party’s (and associates) contention that copyright terms are far too long and should ideally be about ten years long, if that.

If the abolitionist faction gains momentum the pro-copyright maximalists might be willing to be reasonable but until they feel the fire at their feet, I doubt it.

That said, this is a step in the right direction. It’s just a shame the plaintiffs are willing to settle. This really does need to get in front of a jury.

DannyB (profile) says:

What is really disgusting

It is disgusting that a song that has questionable copyright, lyrics from one, melody from another; and was published in a children’s songbook, long ago, is now the subject of a squabble for millions of dollars.

More money than was probably conceivable to whoever first wrote either the lyrics or melody.

Moreover, the original authors may not have been particularly greedy.

But look what Copyright does. Promoting the useful arts and sciences.

Anonymous Coward says:

Happy Payday, Mark Rifkin, Happy Payday Mark Rifkin,Happy Payday Mark Rifkin, You sure raked it in.

And now we end up with Mark Rifkin, and his associates making a cool $4.62 million off the back of happy birthday – which will make these lawyers almost certainly the highest paid recipients from the song in it’s long history.

That One Other Not So Random Guy says:


“the Settlement will end more than 80 years of uncertainty regarding the disputed copyright”

Read that out loud. Only proof anyone needs to know how insane copyright is.

Copyright as it is now is not to encourage people to create. It’s for corporations to make sure they have a cash cow forever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Insanity

The universe where happy birthday’s been public domain since 96. And a great many other things that are still tied up for years to come in the US. And where Walt Disney has been dead for 50 years, and where stuff he worked on alone is public domain ( +stuff he worked on with others who died before him), and any film made before 1966 is public domain.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Insanity

Wether this case goes well or not, the difference between 96 and 2030 is the same for everything else still under copyright in the US, which is nearly everything. Whereas where I am hundreds of works a year come into the public domain.
Granted the TPP will eventually increase the term to 70 years, but it won’t be taking anything out of the public domain.

Anonymous Coward says:

So they have made 50 millions ? Let’s say this is the base of the calculation. the cost of a song 1$ the highest damage 150k ? The license fraud business should have damage equivalent to the profit made illegally. So 1k for licensing without certainty that you own the copyright = 1000 *150k = 150 millions in damage for the public. Then 150k * 50millions = 7.500 trillions. That should deter anyone else from profiting on the public’s back for decades.

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