Happy Birthday Song Settlement

A 1922 book that contained the (unauthorized?) lyrics.

It took years of litigation, but the "Happy Birthday" copyright issues could finally be settled. The song's musical component long ago entered the public domain, but the "Happy Birthday To You" lyrics have remained ostensibly under copyright—until an intrepid filmmaker sued the group that claimed to own the rights.

I've written about the details several times, which included an 11th-hour addition to the suit by a foundation funded by the Hill sisters, one of whom was credited with the lyrics, as that foundation belatedly asserted that it inherited all the rights, not just a share of royalties. (See my August coverage of the suit, then a September update, and a November surprise update.)

The settlement, if approved by a judge who should weep tears of bitter joy to sign off on it, wipes away decades of copyright ownership. Any fees collected since 1949—up to $14 million minus millions in lawyer fees—could be refunded under the settlement by Warner-Chappell! All the parties, including the foundation, have agreed to the terms. (In the settlement agreement, attorneys suggest that from 1949 to 2009, relatively few parties will come forward to claim refunds, but the 2009-to-present group will be more likely.)

"Happy Birthday" was one of the three stickiest extended copyright situations. Another, relating to the "characteristics" of Sherlock Holmes in 10 stories that remain under copyright, was conclusively settled last November, after the Supreme Court denied an appeal.