US court: Happy Birthday - public domain, previous copyright holder must return $ 14 million in royalties

    The musical note used in court (Happy Birthday originates from the work “Good Morning”)

    The copyrighted story of the song “Happy Birthday to you” stretches back to 2013, when the corresponding trial was initiated by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson. In the case, the rights to “Happy Birthday” are disputed by Warner / Chappel. Despite the fact that the melody and the song itself have a centuries-old history, the music publisher Warner / Chappell claimed that the copyright on the work dates back to 1935, now the rights to the work are with the publisher, which means that you need to pay royalties.

    And companies really paid royalties, and considerable ones. For several years, the amount was impressive - $ 14 million. The annual amount of fees was about $ 2 million. But now it is all over: Judge George King made the final decision - the song is in the public domain, and the previous copyright holder must return all the royalties.

    In September last year, the same judge ruled that the transfer of rights referred to by Warner was null and void. Prior to the court ruling, Warner’s deal with the Birch Tree Group was considered legal. Warner bought this company, and with it went to the music publisherand rights to Happy Birthday. The judge also added that in general the authorship of the song was in question - it was still believed that its author was Patty Hill (Patty Hill).

    Warner claimed royalties from anyone using the song. The famous case is when the creators of the documentary Hoop Dreams had to pay royalties of $ 5,000 only to show the scene in the film where the family of one of the main characters of the work sings an ill-fated song.

    Where is the money?

    Now $ 14 million needs to be paid to two different groups of “victims” of Warner. Those who paid deductions before 2009, and those who paid later. The first group will receive up to 15% of the royalties paid, but the second will receive a full refund. As it turned out, the reason for this is the limitation period.

    According to the plaintiffs, the main thing in this whole matter is not money, but the fact that the song will become public domain and no one will be able to demand royalties from the performers.

    Attorney Nelson claims that in the near future he will deal with similar cases, other songs that are unfairly claimed by various companies. But while the lawyer does not want to give names.

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