Copyright trolls who claimed to own "Happy Birthday" will pay $14M to their "customers"

For decades, Warner/Chappell Music claimed to own the rights to the Happy Birthday song, despite the reams of copyright scholarship and historical research showing they had no legitimate claim.

Still, businesses paid Warner millions as an alternative to costly litigation. Finally, a documentary film about Warner's ridiculous claims, sued and won.

Now Warner/Chappell has settled a claim brought by many of the companies that had paid it for a license over the years and years that they were running their fraud. The music publisher will pay $14 million in penalties and fees.

After the judge’s ruling, Warner and the filmmakers reached a settlement deal that would finally put the song back into the public domain where it belongs (even though Warner still contends it does not) and provide some measure of financial redress for people who were improperly charged for its use.

In a Feb. 8 court filing [PDF], Warner has agreed to set up a fund that will pay out claims totaling up to $14 million.

Of that amount, a maximum of $6.25 million is earmarked for claimants who paid to use the birthday song after mid-June 2009. The remainder of the money will be used to cover claims going back all the way to 1949. Claimants in either group should expect to only recoup a fraction of what they paid to Warner and the various other publishers of the song over the years. As usually happens in a class action, the named plaintiffs will likely receive more. In this case, they are asking for between $10,000 and $15,000.

But if the settlement is approved, it’s the lawyers who will come out with a real birthday gift on this one. The lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking $4.6 million from Warner to cover their costs of the case.

“Happy Birthday” Song Settlement To Pay Out $14 Million To People Who Paid To Use Song [Chris Morran/Consumerist]

(Image: Birthday Cake, Omer Wazir, CC-BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. Nelsie says:

    I think some words miss.

  2. BobH says:

    Still, businesses paid Warner millions as an alternative to costly litigation. Finally, a documentary film about Warner's ridiculous claims, sued defended the suit, and won.

    Needs an edit.

  3. What we know is that the words and music both existed in prior to the attempt to copyright. Which makes the copyright invalid.

  4. The issue I was hoping to see addressed was the concealment of evidence by Warner. The way the "damning evidence" was found is a researcher noticing the blurred pages in the scans of the songbook submitted as evidence. Those pages just happened to be the ones with the evidence that showed that the copyright had expired. Those were the only pages that happened to be blurred in that manner.

    I don't think that was a coincidence. I don't think the judge did either.

  5. Hehehe... it all goes back to not getting an Atari VCS when I was a kid...

    You're joshing me (I think!), but of course I do love birthdays - not mine, but those of happy smiling juniors. And my criticism was maybe mean and unnecessary. I just always found it a dull, atonal dirge: na-na-na-na-NA, na-na-na-na-NA, na-NA-Na-na-na-na, NA-Na-na-Na-Na. Maybe it has to be to permeate young minds, I dunno.

    For contrast, the "For (S)He's a Jolly Good Fellow!" refrain which often follows it is a lively, celebratory affair. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    Not that this excuses evil copyright trolling in any way of course, as someone else points out. Hope those Warner lawyers never have a birthday wish come true ever again.

    On a final, semi-related note: I'm not into Springsteen, but he has a strangely touching birthday song called "Surprise, Surprise" which may serve as an alternative HB anthem for grown-ups, should you ever need one (the Beatles have one too, albeit it's a more straightforward rocker).

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