It’s a staple of birthday parties around the world, but for the past two years a battle has been raging over who owns the song “Happy Birthday to You.” Now, some recently uncovered documents might just free the Birthday Song from copyright and put it in the public domain.
Originally composed by Patty and Mildred Hill in the late 19th century, the copyright has been owned by Warner/Chappell Music for almost 30 years, writes Michael E. Miller for the Washington Post. Since purchasing the song in 1988, Warner/Chappell has aggressively defended their copyright, going so far as to sue the Girl Scouts for publicly singing the song in 1996. While it’s become something of a joke in the film and television world, there’s big money in the Birthday Song, to the tune of $2 million a year in licensing fees.
For most of that time the copyright went unchallenged, with most choosing to either pay for the rights or to compose their own birthday song. Documentarian Jennifer Nelson did the same in 2013, when she paid $1,500 for the rights to use footage of people singing “Happy Birthday to You” in a film she was making about the song’s history. But as she did more research, she became more and more skeptical of Warner/Chappell’s claim to the song, Miller writes. So she sued them.
“I felt that there was legitimate reason to take action and not just let this be an industry joke,” Nelson said in a 2014 video about the lawsuit. “So here I am...I just saw something that was inherently wrong and we all joked about it and laughed about it and didn’t do anything about. But then I realized we could do something about it and I did.”
For the last two years, Nelson has been fighting Warner/Chappell in California district court. A judge was set to deliver a ruling this summer, but on July 13 Warner/Chappell submitted more than 500 pages of new documents — including an “illegibly blurred” copy of “Happy Birthday to You” from a 1927 songbook Nelson and her team had never seen before. After a flurry of digging, Nelson uncovered a 1922 version of the book with a crucial difference – there was no copyright listed.
Nelson says this proves that the Birthday Song has been in the public domain for almost a century, calling it “a proverbial smoking gun,” Miller writes. Lawyers representing Warner/Chappell denied hiding any documents in court and argued that the “special permission” granted in 1922 doesn’t nullify the original copyright.
Judge George H. King considered the new evidence in during a hearing on July 29. Soon enough, people around the world may be able to sing “Happy Birthday to You” without fear of being sued.