Happy Birthday going public domain as Warner/Chappell settles lawsuit

Many say it’s the most performed song in the world – and now no-one’s going to have to pay for the privilege.

A two-year-old lawsuit over the ownership of the copyright of Happy Birthday is coming to a close, as publisher Warner/Chappell settles with the plaintiffs who kicked off the dispute.

The most important outcome: once the settlement process has been approved, Happy Birthday will be in the public domain.

That’s not an ideal outcome for Warner/Chappell, which was previously generating around $2m in royalties from the song each year.

The lawsuit kicked off in 2013 after documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson filed a putative class action case against Warner/Chappell, claiming its copyright of Happy Birthday was not lawful.

Nelson was making a film about the history of Happy Birthday, and was supposedly irked by Warner/Chappell’s insistence that she pay a $1,500 licence fee to use the composition.

“While we respectfully disagreed with the court’s decision, we are pleased to have now resolved this matter.”


In September, federal judge George H King ruled that Warner/Chappell’s copyright claim to Happy Birthday was legally invalid, giving summary judgement to the plaintiffs.

King’s decision came after the timely uncovering of a 1922 manuscript which contained the song’s lyrics. Warner/Chappell’s copyright dated back to 1935.

Warner/Chappell argued that the judge should reconsider this ruling or authorise an appeal.

But that wasn’t the end of the wrangle.

In November, a US charity called the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) filed a motion to intervene in the case.

It claimed that the song’s original author, Patty Hill, and her sister, Jessica Hill – co-founders of  had directly assigned rights to Summy Co – which would make Warner/Chappell the song’s rightful controller.

There will, however, be no appeal, or trial investigating ACEI’s claims, because Warner/Chappell has chosen to settle.

A spokesperson for the publisher told MBW: “While we respectfully disagreed with the Court’s decision, we are pleased to have now resolved this matter.”Music Business Worldwide

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