Happy Birthday to You! Judge awards attorneys $4.6M in song copyright claim

© Will Clayton
The ‘Happy Birthday’ song, moved into the public domain thanks to efforts of attorneys in a class action copyright claim against Warner/Chappell. A California federal judge ordered the team $4.6 million in fees for “the unusually positive results.”

“Given the unusually positive results achieved by the settlement, the highly complex nature of the action, the risk class counsel faced by taking this case on a contingency-fee basis, and the impressive skill and effort of counsel, we conclude that a 1.2 multiplier is warranted,” wrote US District for Central California Judge George King in a fee order on Tuesday, pending from 2015 summary judgement in the case Rupa Marya v. Warner/Chappell Music Inc.

The battle over “Happy Birthday” began in 2013 when a filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, started making a documentary about the song. She was asked by the music company to pay $1,500 in royalties. Nelson objected to the fee and pursued a court case that eventually became a class action fight to include “thousands of people and entities” who had paid to use the song in commercial works.

Evidence from the case showed Warner/Chappell had collected about $5,000 per day or $2 million a year in royalties for the song.

The company claimed copyright on the song going back to 1935, although evidence showed the song had appeared in songbooks from the 1920s.

The song is so ubiquitous that even toddler's know the words.

Warner fought back but in 2015 the judge found the copyright transfer to Warner/Chappell wasn’t valid. He also there was no proof noted that the authors, Patty and Mildred Hill were the original authors at all.

“{A} reasonable fact finder could also find that the Happy Birthday lyrics were written by someone else…and that Patty’s 1935 claim to authorship was a post hoc attempt to take credit for the words that had long since become more famous and popular than the ones she wrote for the classic melody,” Judge King wrote.

The attorney’s fees equal one-third of a $14 million settlement fund with Warner/Chappell for the "world’s most popular song."

Star Wars' Chewbacca version sounds more like gargling mouth wash but we understand he meant "Happy Birthday."

According to the settlement agreement made public in February, people and companies who paid fees after 2009 are eligible for a full refund. Those who paid licensing fees before 2009 are eligible for partial refunds.

As for The Beatles, of course, their version had the teens screaming.

Attorney Randall Newman and his colleagues have developed an ear for music, and are now working to free up other famous songs they argue have fraudulent copyright claims.
In April they sued over the African American spiritual “We Shall Overcome,” and in June, they sued over Woody Guthrie tune “This Land is Your Land.”