After decades of ownership by the publisher Warner/Chappell Music, it looks like "Happy Birthday" will pass peacefully into the public domain, and that Warner is going to pay $14 million to settle a class action suit over the copyright brought by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson in 2013.
A memo filed by the plaintiffs on Feb. 8 outlines the terms of the settlement, in which Warner would pay $14 million to the class of plaintiffs who have shelled out cash to license the song and the counsel representing them. Though the copyright on the song was declared invalid in an historic ruling by U.S. District Court Judge George H. King back in September, lingering concerns have remained about appeals and when the song would exist in the public domain, where it'll be free to use and remix in media other than at birthday parties.
It was unclear whether Warner would appeal, and as Eriq Gardner points out in The Hollywood Reporter, they'd filed to do so. This proposed settlement puts a stops to that possibility, but it also means they won't be "going to trial to determine whether it should be punished for collecting licensing money for many decades."
Despite the fact that "Happy Birthday" is kind of a crummy song (as at least one incisive, smart, and funny blogger pointed out) it's been a huge earner for Warner/Chappell. Back in August, my colleague Rob Wile wrote that the song brought the music publisher around $2 million annually, and that it could cost up to $100,000 to license. The class of people entitled to part of the settlement —those who've paid to license the song since 1949— have collectively paid around $50 million to Warner over the years for the use of the song. Once it passes into the public domain, it'll cost nothing.
A hearing on the settlement to be heard before Judge King is scheduled for March.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org