Rest assured that singing “Happy Birthday”—at a party, in the background of a YouTube video, as an absentminded tune in the shower—won’t get you sued anymore.
A $14-million settlement filed in court from Warner/Chappell Music this week is finally putting an end to decades of dispute around the famous tune’s legal status. “Happy Birthday” was originally written by a schoolteacher in the 19th century, but Warner bought the rights for $22 million in 1988 and has been making an estimated $2 million a year licensing the song for film and TV production.
In 2013, film director Jennifer Nelson—who was told she had to pay $1,500 to use the song in a film about, ironically enough, the song’s history—filed a class-action lawsuit against Warner, arguing the song belongs in the public domain. US district judge George H. King ruled in September that Warner does not, in fact, have the rights to the song or lyrics.
This week’s settlement, assuming it’s approved by King in a hearing scheduled for March, will now move the song into the public domain. “‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” Randall Newman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in September. ”Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.”
A third of the $14 million is slated for the lawsuit’s attorneys; the rest will go to Nelson, the other plaintiffs in her case, and anyone else who’s paid to license “Happy Birthday” over the years. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, Warner is partly blaming its operating loss in the last quarter on expenses related to the settlement; the song was also meant to generate $15 million of revenue over the next 15 years for the music giant.
Tough luck for the label. A sigh of relief for everyone else.