When Jennifer Nelson set out a few years ago to make a film about one of the most famous songs in history, she knew one thing for sure: She would have to pay if she wanted to use the song itself.
While doing research for the film, Nelson stumbled upon a paper by Robert Brauneis, a copyright law professor at George Washington University who had studied the song’s history extensively. Brauneis pointed out weaknesses in Warner’s claim, saying that the original 1935 copyright may not have even been filed under the rightful owner’s name.
In 1935, Summy Co. claimed rights to the birthday version of the song for the first time. Warner started collecting royalties after it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co.
Newman soon brought in another attorney, Mark C. Rifkin, a specialist in class action lawsuits, and they filed suit in 2013. Nelson and her attorneys found themselves mired in a mystery, with disparate clues in the yellowed pages of decades-old books, diaries and letters.