"Happy Birthday" Lawsuit Settles, Song Will Enter Public Domain

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In an excellent GQ profile out today, Justin Bieber took the time to remind us all of his birthday, March 1.  The perpetually remorseful pop star will be turning 22 next month, but if you want to serenade him with a special YouTube or Instagram video, you should probably wait two weeks afterward to be safe: March 14, 2016 will mark the first official day that you can't get hit with a copyright infringement suit for broadcasting a recorded performance of "Happy Birthday to You."

Yes, one of the weirder legal battles of our time has come to an end. The birthday song, a tune most children learn by the time they're 3 years old, will finally enter the public domain.

“Happy Birthday to You” was originally written in 1893, by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill. Patty, a kindergarten teacher, said she came up with the song as a "good morning" tune for school children; the birthday-specific lyrics were added as an optional verse.

Their copyright expired in 1949. Music publisher Warner/Chappell music acquired it in 1988 -- and since then has collected about $2 million in royalties a year. (Think about how often you hear the song in movies and on TV. Yeah. It's a lot.)


As KQED reported last fall, Bay Area band Rupya and the April Fishes were among the artists who got hit with the reality of said royalties after they wanted to include the song on a live album recorded during a show they performed at the Independent. The show took place on singer Rupya Marya's birthday, and the band -- and audience -- surprised her with a sing-along. But to include the track on the record, Marya discovered, she'd have to pay $455 in royalties.

That's when she joined LA filmmaker Jennifer Nelson's class-action lawsuit against the music publisher. The suit's lead plaintiff, Nelson first brought the suit in 2013 after she was charged $1500 to use said song in a documentary she was making about it.

A judge ruled in Nelson's favor last year, but Warner/Chappell held to their claim on a couple of wonky technicalities (a separate, 1935 copyright agreement) until settling this week. The publisher has agreed to pay out some $14 million to people who've paid to use the song.

A memorandum in support of the settlement adds the following proclamation and/or warning, depending on how you feel about the song to begin with:

"Because Defendants have charged for use of the Song, untold thousands of people chose not to use the Song in their own performances and artistic works or to perform the Song in public. After the settlement is approved, that restraint will be removed and the song will be performed and used far more often than it has been in the past."

Worth noting: There is nothing in said settlement about performers having to be in tune.