Birthdays are a special time for most people. They offer the chance to celebrate another year, and for people to celebrate you as well. There's usually gifts, cards, a cake, and the traditional singing of "Happy Birthday." Generally speaking, songs like "Happy Birthday" have been around so long that most of us don't give much thought to where they originated, almost assuming that somehow they've always just existed. But those songs and others that exist in the collective consciousness have an origin, and a writer somewhere back in time. And understandably, the estates of those writers want to make sure that the legacy of those songs is protected.
Warner Music Group has agreed to a settlement that will pay $14 million to a group of entities that had paid licensing fees for the song. The settlement also includes $4.6 million in legal fees for the plaintiffs' lawyers, as well as a proposal for an order for the song to be declared in the public domain.
The settlement comes on the heels of a decision from a U.S. District Court judge that the Warner Music Group didn't hold the copyright to "Happy Birthday", and had never purchased the rights to the song. The judgment was rendered in the case brought by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was suing Warner Music after she was told to pay a $1,500 licensing fee to use "Happy Birthday" in her documentary on the song.
The song itself traces it's origins back to 1893, to a pair of sisters from Kentucky named Mildred and Patty Hill. The sisters wrote the now-familiar melody for their song "Good Morning to All", with the birthday-related lyrics being added years later by an unknown author. Warner Music Group came into control of the song when it acquired its rights-holder in 1988.
Should the song be declared in the public domain, it would represent a significant change for popular media. Warner Music is estimated to have made approximately $2 million annually from licensing the song, revenue that will be lost should the song enter the public domain. And not having to pay that licensing fee would not only save considerable money to one-time licensees, but would allow for the song's use for those who had previously been unable to afford to license it.