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The "smoking gun" is a 1927 version of the "Happy Birthday" lyrics, predating Warner/Chappell's 1935 copyright by eight years. That 1927 songbook, along with other versions located through the plaintiffs' investigations, "conclusively prove that any copyright that may have existed for the song itself... expired decades ago."
Warner/Chappell has built a licensing empire based on "Happy Birthday," which in 1996 was pulling in more than $2 million per year.
Plaintiff Jennifer Nelson's movie is actually called Happy Birthday, and it's about the song. She had to pay Warner/Chappell $1,500 to use the song in her movie, and that didn't sit well with the documentarian. She's seeking to get that money back and also represent a class of plaintiffs who have paid similar licensing fees to Warner/Chappell on a copyright she and her lawyers say is illegitimate.
"[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, much less whether Patty Hill abandoned any copyright she may have had to the lyrics," they write.