After Decades of Bullying, Warner/Chappell Whines Over ‘Happy Birthday’ Fines

Happy Birthday to You
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Payback’s a f–kin’ bitch…

The long, drawn out ‘Happy Birthday’ lawsuit is finally coming to a close, according to Variety.  US District judge George King is considering a final settlement that would find Warner Chappell paying out $14 million in compensation and over $4 million in attorneys fees.

Background of the lawsuit.

In September of last year, the federal judge ruled that ‘Happy Birthday to You’ was in the public domain.  That was great news for artists, producers, filmmakers and broadcasters, but horrible news for Warner/Chappell Music, a company that had been extracting (and extorting) millions from a flimsy and arguably fabricated copyright claim.

Warner/Chappell were asked to pay a massive $14 million to the parties that paid to license the iconic song.  Then, the attorneys who won the ruling asked for an additional $4.84 million, bringing damages surrounding the wrongful ownership claims and copyright bullying to nearly $19 million.

What happened?

Warner/Chappell claimed to control exclusive copyright to ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ and had been making millions from royalties over several years through intensive bullying and intimidation.  Most weren’t big enough to take on the corporate threats, until Good Morning To You Productions Corp., Robert Siegel, Rupa Marya, and Majar Productions LLC filed a lawsuit contesting Warner’s ownership of the copyright.

Warner/Chappell battled through the suit for obvious reasons: they didn’t want to let go of future earnings guaranteed until a 2030 expiration.  But judge King determined that Warner/Chappell actually didn’t secure the proper copyrights in the first place, and were essentially enforcing a copyright that they didn’t even own.

Even worse, they were exploiting their corporate legal muscle to effectively extort anyone who wanted to use the classic tune.

The judge ordered Warner/Chappell to reimburse those that had paid to license the song from them, and the attorneys wanted their share as well.  But, Warner Chappell still contested whether ‘Happy Birthday’ properly belongs in the public domain, and said that the requested attorney’s fees were ‘excessive’.

Now, the Judge is deciding the final ruling.

(Image by pictures of money, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic, cc by 2.0)

One Response

  1. Lest it be overlooked...

    As an article has yet to be written on this site regarding the Music Reports and U.S. Copyright Office, I thought this would as an appropriate post as any to lodge the following objections to such a scheme.

    It is my understanding that this licensing scheme is authorized pursuant to Section 115 of the U.S. Copyright Act. That Music Reports is automating the Notice of Intent (NOI) process “enabling” instant licensing for on-demand distribution, specifically, mechanical licenses for on-demand streaming. That royalties for the unpublished compositions that are yet to be published are accrued until ownership is determined. Though I am not certain whether or not this licensing scheme includes licensing for those who are not as well as those compositions that are not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, to the extent that such is the case, I assert that such a licensing scheme not only flies in the face of the U.S. Constitution, but also defiles the principles set out in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985), among others.

    Paragraph 14 notes, “The copyright act does not support this proposition.” Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, id.

    That, at para. 12, “[t]his approach was “intended was intended to restate the [preexisting] judicial doctrine of fair use, not to change, narrow, or enlarge it in any way.” Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, id.

    That, at para. 14, “[u]nder common law copyright, ‘the property of the author . . . in his intellectual creation [was] absolute until he voluntarily part[ed] with the same. (Citation omitted.) Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, id.

    That, at para. 19, the copyright act, “…echoes the common law’s concern that the author or copyright owner retain control throughout this critical stage. Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, id.

    That, at para. 19, “[t]hat the obvious benefit to author and public alike of assuring authors the leisure to develop their ideas free from fear of expropriation outweighs any short-term ‘news value’ to be gained from premature publication of the author’s expression.” Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, id.

    That, at para. 19, “[t]he author’s control of first public distribution implicates not only his personal interest in creative control, but his property interest in exploitation of prepublication rights, which are valuable in themselves and serve as a valuable adjunct to publicity and marketing.” Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, id.

    That, at para. 35, “[t]he fact that a work is unpublished is a critical element of its ‘nature.'”

    Though this list of potential outcomes is not exhaustive, it does helps illustrate the point; an “author” may decide not to sell, publish or otherwise register their works with the U.S. Copyright Office. What if, let’s say, an “author” decided not to sell, or register their works with the U.S. Copyright Office, but instead decided to license their works and monetize those works directly through or by various other means like, let’s say, for example, brand endorsements, paid subscription or ad-supported distribution models, et cetera, et cetera. As previously stated, this is just a list of alternate possibilities which, necessarily, are not exhaustive and, I imagine, the potential possibilities and uses are limited only by the imagination of the “authors.”

    In any event, the licensing scheme of Music Reports and the U.S. Copyright Office as shown above ultimately could not know what the “authors” may ultimately decide and I believe and assert that damage to the “authors” rights are inevitable.

    Perhaps this may be a good subject for a future more in-depth article on DMN, just a suggestion. I would have liked to further elaborate, however, circumstances beyond my control “cut” my time short.