Since 2013, Good Morning To You Productions has been working on a documentary about the “Happy Birthday” song and its complicated origin. As part of the project, the production company filed a lawsuit against Warner/Chappell—which holds the rights to “Happy Birthday To You” and makes over a million dollars off of it every year—arguing that its claim to the song isn’t valid. The whole thing goes back almost a century, and it essentially revolves around the question of whether or not the song’s supposed original writers, sisters Mildred and Patty Hill (those miserly old crones) actually did write it and actually controlled the rights to it.
Good Morning To You has apparently found some new evidence, though, that makes any question about the Hill sisters irrelevant—except in terms of Comedy Bang Bang references. As reported by Ars Technica, the filmmakers recently uncovered a songbook that not only contains the lyrics to “Happy Birthday,” but it also pre-dates the original Warner/Chappell-controlled copyright from 1935 by eight years. From here it gets a little complicated, but the short version is that the Good Morning To You people then started to track down earlier copies of this songbook, and they eventually found one from 1922 that doesn’t have any copyright notice attached to the “Happy Birthday” lyrics. Apparently, according to olde-timey copyright laws that were in effect back then, that means the copyright would’ve been forfeited, but that’s not even the entirety of this so-called “smoking gun.” As Ars explains:
The plaintiffs argue that the 1922 publication without proper notice forfeited copyright in the work. Even if the judge overseeing the case doesn’t agree with them, however, there’s a secondary argument: the copyright for the whole 1922 songbook expired in 1949.
Somehow, it doesn’t even stop there: Assuming that the 1922 copyright was actually legitimate, and that its owners renewed it in 1949, it would’ve expired anyway in the late-’90s. We don’t know anything about complicated music copyright laws, but that certainly makes it sound like this is it for the copyright on the “Happy Birthday” song. Just think: In our lifetimes, we may be able to see a character on a TV show sing the actual “Happy Birthday” song. What a time to be alive.