A settlement has been reached in a lawsuit over whether "Happy Birthday to You" — one of the best-known and beloved songs in the world — is owned by a music publisher who earned millions by enforcing its copyright.
U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled in September that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. didn't own the lyrics to the song, only some musical arrangements — and thus the company had no right to charge for its use.
A trial set to begin next week in Los Angeles could have finally decreed whether the lyrics sung to generations of birthday boys and girls around the globe really is in the public domain.
Also to be decided at trial was whether Warner/Chappell would have to return any of the licensing fees — estimated at up to $2 million a year — that were collected for use of the song in movies, television shows and other commercial ventures.
But on Tuesday, King vacated the trial, saying all parties in the case had agreed to settle.
"It resolves all issues," said Randall Scott Newman, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs.
He and other lawyers declined to provide details of the settlement, which is awaiting the judge's approval.
However, the previous ruling and the settlement strongly imply that the lyrics will become available for free.
Jennifer Nelson, who was billed $1,500 to use "Happy Birthday to You" in a documentary she is doing on the song's history, said she is "delighted" with the outcome of the case.
"We revealed a dark side to the happy tune," she said Wednesday. "It's a song that everyone's familiar with and grew up with but nobody knew that this song was copyrighted and you had to pay a license for that."
"The fact that it was illegally and wrongfully in the clutches of Warner/ Chappell really outraged people and now we've been able to rectify that situation. So it's really gratifying," she said.
"While we respectfully disagreed with the court's decision, we are pleased to have now resolved this matter," Warner/Chappell said in a statement.
The tune, with different lyrics, was written in 1893 by Patty Smith Hill, a Kentucky kindergarten teacher, and her sister, Mildred J. Hill. They called it "Good Morning to All."
They assigned the rights to that and other songs to Clayton F. Summy, who copyrighted and published them in a book titled "Song Stories for the Kindergarten."
Over the years, the rights passed from the Clayton F. Summy Co. to Birch Tree Group and then to Warner when it bought Birch Tree in 1988.
The lawsuit was filed two years ago by musicians and filmmakers who were billed for using "Happy Birthday to You."
In his September ruling, King noted that while the tune has long been in the public domain, the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You" have a murkier background. They were mentioned in a 1901 publication but the full lyrics didn't appear in print until 1911.
It wasn't until the 1930 that Patty Hill claimed to have written the lyrics at the same time that she co-wrote "Good Morning to All."
King ruled that Summy Co. never actually acquired the rights to the lyrics — only to piano arrangements of the melody — and thus its successor had no valid copyright.
Among other issues the settlement is expected to resolve is a contention made this week that the copyright is owned by two charities that were beneficiaries of the Hill estate. The charities had accepted royalties from Warner/Chappell for more than 20 years.