10 Dec 2015

Legal fight over 'Happy Birthday to You' settled

11:40 am on 10 December 2015

Settlement of a copyright battle over one of the world's most recognisable songs, Happy Birthday to You, could put it in the public domain.

Birthday cake at a children's party.

Photo: 123RF

The deal puts an end to a class-action lawsuit filed in 2013 by a group of artists and filmmakers who had sought a return of the millions of dollars in fees the company had collected over the years for use of the song.

Chief US District Judge George King, in Los Angeles, said in court papers that a trial scheduled for next week would not go ahead after the artists and filmmakers settled with Warner/Chappell Music.

The tune was composed by American sisters Mildred and Patty Hill in 1893. They called their version Good Morning To All, which later evolved into the version popular at birthday parties worldwide.

The case against Warner/Chappell was launched in 2013 by Rupa Marya and Robert Siegel, who were working on a documentary about the song.

The music publisher asked for $US1500 for the right to use Happy Birthday To You in the film.

Ms Marya and Mr Siegel argued the song was in the public domain and should not be subject to copyright fees.

Warner/Chappell acquired the copyright - which was originally filed in 1935 - in 1988.

In September this year, Judge King ruled the original copyright was granted for specific arrangements of the music, not the song itself.

"The Hill sisters gave Summy Co the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody but never any rights to the lyrics," he said. The rights to the song were eventually purchased by Warner/Chappell for $US25 million when they bought a successor company to Summy in the 1980s.

People who sing Happy Birthday in their homes or at private gatherings have typically never been at risk of a lawsuit.

But when the song has been used for commercial purposes, such as in films, Warner has enforced its rights, and took in an estimated $2 million in royalties for such uses each year.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed in court papers announcing the settlement

But once the settlement is finalised, the song will be in the public domain, a source close to the case told Reuters. That means it will be free for all to use without fear of a lawsuit.

- Reuters / BBC