It’s the end of an era, in case you missed it: Copyright professors have lost the best example of a right owner’s legal stranglehold, Happy Birthday. Now performers, movies, and television shows can freely use the tune that is sung, nearly universally, at birthdays across the country. There have been creative alternatives to this tune over the years, but none could hold a candle.
A federal court in Los Angeles ruled that the song was, and has been, in the public domain. That’s because the company that Warner bought the rights from, Summy Co., never actually acquired the lyrics from the original owners; Warner, thus, does not have a valid copyright in the lyrics.
This ruling compelled Warner to seek a settlement to avoid hefty damages claims. Just before the case was set to go to trial, last December, the two parties reached a settlement. The details of which have just been released.
In settlement papers filed on Feb. 8, which, interestingly enough, Warner still asserts that they have a valid copyright in the lyrics, the company has agreed to pay out claims for those who were charged for using Happy Birthday up to $14 million. Half of that money, $6.25 million, is dedicated for claimants who have paid to use the song since June 15, 2009 while the other half can be used for claims going all the way back to 1949.
The settlement is still pending approval, set for March 14, by a federal judge; lines should form shortly thereafter of those singing loudly for a refund.