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Very soon filmmakers shooting birthday scenes and waiters helping families celebrate at restaurants won’t have to choose between paying a license fee to sing “Happy Birthday” or creating an alternative celebratory tune — one of the world’s best-known songs is almost free to use at last.
Chief U.S. District Judge George H. King on Monday gave the settlement the green light, but because attorneys fees still need to be sorted out, it isn’t yet final. The deal will put “Happy Birthday to You” in the public domain and order Warner/Chappell Music to refund about $14 million it had collected in royalties.
This lawsuit began three years ago, when a filmmaker who was making a documentary about the song sued after she was asked to pay a $1,500 licensing fee.
In September, King found the copyright to “Happy Birthday” to be invalid, clearing the way for a trial to determine if Warners should pay damages for licensing a work it did not own the rights to. Instead, Warner/Chappell opted to settle.
King says the settlement is appropriate, fair and reasonable and that he can’t think of a reason why the settlement should not proceed. He asked defense attorney Kelly Klaus to reply to a motion on proposed attorneys fees and costs by July 12. Once that is sorted, the proverbial fat lady will have sung — and she’ll be free to sing “Happy Birthday” at will.
While the settlement is not “technically officially official,” plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Rifkin says the judge’s approval of the essential elements of the settlement is a “huge, huge victory for artists and the public around the world.”
“The song is now judicially ordered to be in the public domain,” Rifkin says, adding that this etches in stone King’s September ruling.
One of the name plaintiffs, musician Rupa Marya, had planned to perform the first “free” public performance of “Happy Birthday to You” after the hearing. Despite the case not quite being closed, Marya sang and played guitar “in the key of F-U” outside the courthouse.
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