For years now, we have labored under the impression that a valid copyright exists on “Happy Birthday To You.” Evidently, that copyright’s validity is … um … questionable.
It’s not often that a big, dramatic revelation happens in a court case, but in Good Morning to You Productions Corp. et al. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. et al., currently before the US District Court for the Central District of California, a new piece of evidence has just turned up that turns the copyright on “Happy Birthday” on its ear. Evidently, “Happy Birthday” is a derivative of a song called “Good Morning to You,” which was published under the 1909 Copyright Act — without notice of copyright. Today, notice means little in the world of copyright, but under the 1909 Act, notice was everything. If notice of the copyright wasn’t published with the work, the copyright in the work was void.
Interestingly, the important subtitle on the song’s manuscript was blurred in the version given by Warner/Chappell to Good Morning to You Productions as a document produced in discovery (late, I might add). That made people curious. With some good document analysis, the truth came out: the work was published without notice and therefore without copyright.
This case is still ongoing at Docket #2013-CV-04460; no court has actually invalidated the copyright on “Happy Birthday To You,” but I don’t think we need to wait too long for the Central District of California to enter judgment on behalf of Good Morning to You Productions, voiding the copyright. We will soon be able to sing “Happy Birthday” without worrying about paying a royalty.