Pitt Law Librarians Help Uncover Smoking Gun Evidence in Historic “Happy Birthday” Song Lawsuit

The "smoking gun" evidence, The Everyday Song Book

It’s evidence that might prove conclusively there is no copyright to the lyrics of the “Happy Birthday” song, and attorneys for the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit Good Morning To You Productions Corp. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc discovered it was housed in the University of Pittsburgh’s library storage facility. Scrambling to get a hold of it, the attorneys contacted Pitt Law professor and intellectual property law expert Michael Madison. He put them in touch with the Barco Law Library's interim director Marc Silverman and law librarian Linda Tashbook.

The fourth edition of The Everyday Song Book was published in 1922 and contains lyrics for “Happy Birthday To You” without any copyright notice, which predates Warner/Chappell’s 1935 copyright registration. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the plaintiffs discovered evidence of the book, a blurry photo in Warner/Chappell’s own files, which they were given access to only three weeks ago. Tashbook retrieved Pitt’s rare copy and delicately scanned the relevant pages for the attorneys as fast as possible.

Presently, anyone who publically sings or performs “Happy Birthday,” whether at a restaurant or in a major motion picture has to pay Warner/Chappell a royalty. Since 1935, Warner/Chappell has collected royalties, now up to $2 million a year, from the song.

Now with the help of Pitt Law and the University, the world’s most recognized song in the English language (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) may become free to the public. In a new filing in the case (PDF), the attorneys for the plaintiffs write, “[T]he documents prove conclusively that the song is in the public domain, thus making it unnecessary for the Court to decide the scope or validity of the disputed copyrights…”

Read more in “Happy Birthday Lawsuit: ‘Smoking Gun’ Emerges in Bid to Free World's Most Popular Song” in The Hollywood Reporter.

Excerpt from Pitt's copy of The Everyday Song Book.