A federal judge awarded more than $4 million in attorney fees this week to the legal team that successfully brought “Happy Birthday” into the public domain.
In a 20-page ruling dated Tuesday, U.S. District Judge George King agreed to give the lawyers who won the case 33 percent of the $14 million settlement previously approved in court.
Music publisher Warner/Chappell offered to pay the substantial eight-figure sum last year to settle a copyright case brought in 2013 on behalf of Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker who encountered legal obstacles while researching the origins of what court documents called “the world’s most popular song.”
After being asked by the publishing company to pay $1,500 in licensing fees to use the song, Ms. Nelson pursued a court case that was eventually elevated to class-action status to include “thousands of people and entities” who have paid to use the song in commercial works.
Judge King said in September 2015 that the original copyright filed for the song in 1935 concerns its music, not its lyrics, prompting Warner/Chappell to settle before trial.
Attorneys for Ms. Nelson in turn asked the judge to put aside 33 percent of the $14 million settlement — a substantially larger percentage than what is typically awarded in attorneys fees.
In his ruling, Judge King agreed that her attorneys deserved a “lodestar” payment of roughly $3.85 million, which he then multiplied by 1.2 after taking into account various factors concerning the winning legal team’s efforts.
“Given the unusually positive results achieved by the settlement, the highly complex nature of the action, the risk class counsel faced by taking this case on a contingency-fee basis and the impressive skill and effort of counsel, we conclude that a 1.2 multiplier is warranted,” the judge wrote.
Speaking of the $14 million already awarded, the judge suggested Warner/Chappell got off easy by settling instead of going to trial.
“While we may not be able to precisely quantify the nonmonetary benefits that will flow from the settlement, those benefits are substantial. The settlement undoubtedly is worth more than $14 million,” he wrote.
Specifically, Judge King has agreed to award the winning attorneys a total of $4.62 million from Warner/Chappell — 33 percent of the $14 million settlement.
“The victory in the case was a great team effort that was possible only through much hard work by a very dedicated group of professionals. I am gratified that Judge King recognized the legal team’s skill and dedication to this case,” Mark Rifkin, a partner for one of the plaintiffs’ lead counsels, told Law360.com.