After more than two years of litigation, Happy Birthday to You — often called the most popular song in the world, but one that has long been under copyright — is one step closer to joining the public domain.
In September, a federal judge ruled that Warner Music, the song’s publisher, did not have a valid copyright claim to Happy Birthday, which has been estimated to collect $2 million a year in royalties. But what that ruling meant for the future of the song — and Warner’s liability — was unclear, and a trial had been set to begin next week.
In a filing on Tuesday in United States District Court in Los Angeles, the parties in the case said they had agreed to a settlement to end the case. The terms of that deal are confidential. But if the settlement is approved by the court, the song is expected to formally enter the public domain, meaning that it will not be covered by copyright and can be performed freely.
The origins of Happy Birthday date to 1893 with the publication of Good Morning to All, a song with the same tune but different lyrics that was written by Mildred Hill and her sister Patty, a kindergarten teacher in Kentucky. Birthday-themed variations began to appear in the early 1900s, although their authorship was murky. Warner, which had owned the song since 1988, traced its copyright claim to registrations made in 1935 by the Hill sisters’ original publisher, the Clayton F. Summy Company.
In a twist to the case, the Association for Childhood Education International, a nonprofit group that was co-founded by Patty Hill and has collected a large portion of the song’s royalties, filed a motion last month arguing that if Warner did not control the copyright to Happy Birthday, then it did.
A lawyer for the association declined to comment on Wednesday, but the document filed with the court this week said that the organization was a party to the settlement.