We’ve looked at the legal effort to clarify the copyright status of the “Happy Birthday” song a couple of times—in 2013 when it launched, and again last week. But Boing Boing has posted an extensive look at the key evidence in the case, and at the history of the song’s writers.
The song’s composers, Mildred and Patty Hill, really deserve to be remembered for more than just composing “Happy Birthday.” They were very progressive educators in their day, responsible for a number of key advances in educational theory at the time. They founded an organization that was one of very few institutes in the country to train African-American teachers. They were also responsible for the immediate predecessor of “unit blocks,” the specifically-shaped building blocks that have been used in childcare for over 100 years.
The “Happy Birthday” song was an alternate set of lyrics to “Good Morning to All,” one of a series of songs the Hills wrote to be easy for kids to memorize and sing. Concerned over copyright, the Hills were careful not to write down the lyrics to variant versions until they were able to fix them in a form that could be copyrighted under the laws of the day.
Warner claims that the copyright to Happy Birthday dates from a publication in 1935, which would render the work still under copyright until 2030. However, new evidence discovered at the last moment reveals the song could be found in a 1922 songbook. The songbook had a “permission” notice from a company associated with the Hills’ works, but did not have a copyright notice printed. (Under the laws of the day, an explicit copyright notice was required for a work to be considered under copyright.)
This meant that, as of that publication, the song should have been considered to be in the public domain. Even if it had still been copyrighted in that book, it would have expired before the Sony Bono copyright extension took effect and capped public domain titles at 1923.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this matter turns out. The case appears so open and shut that it’s hard to imagine the song won’t be found to be in the public domain. But there’s enough money at stake that it’s hard to say how things will really go in the end.