04 March, 2016

Free to Sing - 'Happy Birthday to You' In Public Domain After Settlement

The recent saga dealing with the song 'Happy Birthday to You' has been discussed at length by many intellectual property commentators, including in this very blog here and here. The ownership of the copyright in the song, and the licencing practices surrounding it handled by Warner/Chappell, have been a big point of contention, with a recent ruling by the District Court of Central California declaring the copyright in the works to not reside with Warner/Chappell due to a lack of proper transfer of the rights to the ultimate entity. Warner/Chappell undoubtedly would have appealed the earlier decision, but the matter has since come to an abrupt end after a settlement between the relevant parties.

Per the Settlement Agreement, accessible here on Scribd, there are some terms of interest that must be mentioned.

The Settlement was a bitter-sweet end for Lisa
Section 2.1 of the Agreement mandates the establishment of a Settlement Fund, aimed at remunerating those who have paid licencing fees for the use of the song 'Happy Birthday to You'. The maximum amount allocated to the fund, if needed, would be $14 million, clearly demonstrating the understanding that there will be a considerable amount of entities with the relevant Settlement Class (considering that each licence is roughly $1500). This would include all persons who have paid such licencing fees since the 3rd of September 1949 (including, among others, to collecting societies or direct licences to Warner/Chappell). Even so, the realistic periods and sums of payment are set for two specific groups: payments made on or after the 13th of June 2009, or payments made before that date. The former group is entitled to all of their payments, but the latter only a share of 15% of what they have paid out. The difference, according to the claimant's lawyers, is due to the Statute of Limitations, enabling them to recoup some of their costs even in the absence of a proper claim due to the limitation period.

Additionally, section 2.2 sets out an express relinquishment of all claims of ownership over the song, and a requirement to no longer pursue any fee payments over the use of the song. Furthermore, the parties agree that the song is (under all likelihood, outside of any third-party claims in rights) in the public domain after the 8th of February 2016. However, Warner/Chappell did expressly defend their position in the settlement, and retained their position as the holders of the rights in the song. This seems to be mainly a point of principle, as the settlement does dictate that the song is in the public domain.

The Agreement also stipulates certain actions that need to be taken, such as the creation of a website and other administrative duties involved with the settlement and the payment of the settlement fees.

Arguably, the settlement is not much to write home about, but is an important illustration of the importance of challenging even the oldest, most well-known rights, when needed. The first instance decision set the tone for the settlement, and it shows in the one-sidedness of the Agreement, especially in the financial side of things. Nevertheless, the Happy Birthday saga has been an interesting one, and this writer, although underwhelmed by a settlement rather than a prolonged legal battle, is happy that we can all once again sing the song where ever and when ever we want.

Source: Ars Technica

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