Lawsuit Over the Price of 'Happy Birthday' Inches Forward

"Happy Birthday to You" is a 120-year-old tune sung every day in every corner of the United States -- from sea to shining Chuck E. Cheese -- but try to use it in a movie or TV show and prepare to pay up. At a hearing on Monday for a class-action suit aiming to wrest the song to public domain, a rep from its owner, Warner/Chappell Music, hinted at the kind of money that the publisher charges for its use.

Courthouse News is reporting that Warner/Chappell's head of legal affairs, Scott McDowell, told U.S. District Judge George King in federal court that a basic license to synch the song costs between $500 to $1,500, but that a major motion picture could go as high as five or six figures. That said, the fee scale appears to depend on the size of the project. One of the plaintiffs, filmmaker Robert Siegel, later said that he paid $3,000 to use "Happy Birthday" in his indie film Big Fan.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2013 by Good Morning to You Productions, which paid Warner/Chappell $1,500 to use the song in a documentary. The production company wants Warner/Chappell to reimburse the money it has collected in music synch licenses -- a sum it says has reached millions of dollars.

Monday's hearing established whether the case would go to a jury or stay with the judge. Both parties agreed to give Judge King first crack, but that if he was unable to make a ruling in favor of either side the case could go to trial. After arguments, the judge took the case under submission but did not indicate when (or if) he will rule.

So, why is "Happy Birthday" copyrighted in the first place? Get ready to be confused. Sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill composed the song in 1893, but called it "Good Morning to All." The sisters sold and assigned their rights to the song to the Clayton F. Summy Company in 1893 in exchange for 10 percent of retail sales. Over time, the tune and lyrics for "Good Morning" evolved into the ubiquitous song that it is today. Its "Happy Birthday" lyrics appeared in a 1924 songbook and the piano parts were published in 1935 -- which is when Warner/Chappell argues it began its 95 years of protection under copyright law.

Decades later the song's copyright was held by Birch Tree Group Limited, which was purchased by Warner/Chappell for $15 million in 1988. "Happy Birthday" will remain under copyright -- and continue to make Warner/Chappell money -- until 2030 unless a court decides it belongs to the public domain.