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Judge approves Happy Birthday settlement, basically making the song public domain in US

By | Published on Tuesday 28 June 2016


‘Happy Birthday’ is now very close to being a public domain work in the US, after a judge approved the previously reported settlement between Warner’s music publishing business and previous licensees of the famous song.

As previously reported, it was believed the lyrics to ‘Happy Birthday’ were still in copyright in the US, where songs from the early 20th century are subject to legacy copyright terms rather than the now more common life-of-the-creator-plus-seventy-years rule.

However, a film-maker who produced a documentary about the song came up with various arguments as to why ‘Happy Birthday’ was actually out of copyright Stateside, resulting in litigation with its publisher, Warner/Chappell, which had acquired ownership of the song in the 1980s.

Many of the arguments were never fully tested, however a court did rule that the two sisters who wrote the song never actually assigned the rights in the specific ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics to the publishing company Warner bought.

Following that ruling, Warner announced a settlement in which it will accept the song is public domain in the US and set aside $14 million to refund people who had paid to use the song in America. But that settlement needed court approval.

Yesterday it got it, with judge George H King saying the settlement seemed reasonable and there was no reason it should not proceed. Though there is still a little legal wrangling to be done regarding the attorney fees to be paid by the publisher, with Warner’s lawyers due to respond to a proposal on that front by 12 Jul.

Technically things aren’t totally official until that last matter is resolved, but nevertheless, that’s basically ‘Happy Birthday’ now public domain in the US. Let’s all have a sing song. Well, you Americans can, there’s a few months still to go over here where the 70 year rule still applies.