In a strange lawsuit, a movie producer, Jennifer Nelson, sued music publisher Warner/Chappell over whether she had to pay royalties to use the Happy Birthday song in her documentary. Her documentary was about the history of the song. Ms. Nelson claimed that Warner/Chappell did not own the rights to the song, and therefore, could not charge her royalties.
Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred J. Hill wrote the tune in 1893 with the title "Good Morning to All." From what I understand the Hill sisters were teachers and included the song in a children's music book. They left the copyright with their publisher. Somewhere along the convoluted history of the song, the "Happy Birthday" lyrics were added.
In 1988 Warner began collecting royalties for the song. Warner had purchased the company that obtained the copyright from the Hill sisters' publisher sometime around that time. To add to the complexity of the case, two other groups claimed a right to the song's copyright: The Association for Childhood Education International ("ACEI") and the Hill Foundation. ACEI was a charity designated by the Hill family to receive a portion of the song's licensing profits. The Hill Foundation and ACEI claimed that they were the actual copyright holders of the song.
Earlier in the lawsuit, the District Judge ruled that neither Warner nor the prior companies had the right to charge for use of the song--the Judge did not rule on the issue regarding whether the song is in the public domain.
Ultimately, Warner/Chappell agreed to pay $ 14 million to settle the class action lawsuit. In addition, they have given up their claims to the song which means that the song falls into the public domain for everyone to use without having to pay a royalty. Now, the District Judge will need to approve the terms of the settlement for the settlement to be final.
According to documents filed with the court, the settlement is the result of intense "around the clock" negotiations during the week before the scheduled trial. The settlement includes ACEI and the Hill Foundation. No party to the settlement agreement admits wrongdoing and Warner denies that the song is in the public domain.