A surprise twist in a tussle over what may be the most popular song ever could have broad repercussions for the entertainment industry.
The legal battle is over the song “Happy Birthday to You,” which The Washington Post reports is “arguably the world’s most popular song.” The legal dispute has been going on for two years.
“New evidence turned over this month by the music company claiming to own the song’s copyright has thrown that very same copyright into doubt,” The Post reports. That evidence is a 1927 version of the song without a copyright.
The evidence surfaced in a case involving documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who is suing Warner/Chappell Music over the right to use the song.
Nelson’s filing calls the new evidence “a proverbial smoking-gun,” and adds: “The newly discovered evidence … proves conclusively that Happy Birthday has been in the public domain since no later than 1922.”
The stakes are high. The report says filmmakers, advertisers, stage directors and singers currently pay out more than $5,000 daily — or $2 million each year — to use the Birthday Song.
“Now Nelson’s lawsuit threatens to upset that order,” The Post reports. “If her latest motion is successful, it could liberate the ubiquitous ditty once and for all.”
The report quotes Nelson, who filed suit in 2013, saying last year: “I brought up the issue and the world basically responded. It went viral. I had no idea that this was going to happen like this. But the consensus is that this is a lawsuit with merit, and that the Happy Birthday song should belong to the public and not belong to a corporation that you have to pay to be able to use this song.”