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‘Happy Birthday’ in Public Domain: Washington Post, Law360 and Daily Journal Ask Michael Donaldson for Insight on Game-Changing Decision

After a two-year legal battle, a California federal judge has ruled that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. (Warner) has never had a valid copyright claim to the song “Happy Birthday to You”. The Judge determined that Warner failed to obtain rights to the song’s lyrics and had only acquired rights to the melody, which has been in the public domain for decades. Several media outlets turned to partner Michael Donaldson to gain perspective on what the ruling means for copyright law, Warner Music and the entities that have licensed the song.

Daily Journal asked Donaldson to explain a likely outcome of the decision. He admits that Warner will most likely have to pay back all of the licensing fees they’ve earned in the past 27 years. While Warner currently estimates that it makes $2 million each year from the song, Donaldson predicts that the final number will be much higher.

“If you’ve collected fees that you don’t deserve based on a misunderstanding about what your rights to collect them are, you have to pay that back,” he said. “The judge declared unequivocally that there was no legitimate claim to copyright ownership by Warner, and he did it in a way that really prevents almost anybody else from making such a claim.”

In an interview with Law360, Donaldson described the importance of establishing chain of title—a paper trail from the current owner back to the original author—when dealing with copyright issues. “This kind of clearance work, checking over chain of title, it’s a tedious job,” he adds. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and it must be done carefully so that all the pieces fit together.”

Finally, he spoke to the significance of the decision with The Washington Post. The ruling, which has laid the groundwork for a class-action suit, has an impact that goes beyond money and copyright law.

“Everybody in their daily lives has to deal with big companies, big companies that tell them ‘you have to do things our way because we’re big and you’re just a little individual,’” Donaldson said. “And here it is, a whole bunch of little individuals got together and they took it to court and won. That’s always a victory.”