The song is iconic. “Happy birthday to you,” twice. “Happy birthday” (again) followed by the birthday boy or girl’s name. And again, to close, “happy birthday to you.” The Guinness Book of World Records (as of 1998) says that “Happy Birthday” is the most recognizable English language song, followed by “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and then “Auld Lang Syne.” But unlike the second and third most recognizable English songs, “Happy Birthday” has another distinction:
Until 2015, it was still under copyright.
In 1893, two sisters from Kentucky, Mildred and Patty Hill, composed a song called “Good Morning to All.” The lyrics — “Good morning to you / good morning to you / good morning dear children / good morning to all” — are foreign to modern ears. But the melody they used for the song is now more commonly known for its use in “Happy Birthday.”
Sometime over the next few decades, that tune was wed to the modern lyrics. Nobody knows exactly who wrote the stanza we all sing regularly — depending on who you ask, “Happy Birthday” may be by the same two sisters, or it may not have been written for twenty years thereafter. What we do know: the lyrics appeared in a 1924 book, as a second stanza following the original ones in “Good Morning to All.” And the song appeared in a series of other contexts soon after. Nevertheless, in 1935, the company which originally published “Good Morning to All” — working with the Hills’ sister Jessica — copyrighted “Happy Birthday.”
Today, the rights are owned by Warner Music Group. Warner continues to enforce the copyright insofar as public and/or for-profit performances is concerned. (Don’t worry about singing it at a private family gathering.) Enforcement of the copyright net the company $2 million in royalties in 2008 alone, and apparently, the Walt Disney company paid $5,000 to use the song in a ride at Epcot Center a few decades ago.
But some take steps to avoid the fees. For example, some film makers substitute “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in when “Happy Birthday” would otherwise be more appropriate. And, perhaps absurdly, some large chain restaurants instruct servers to sing atypical birthday songs when guests celebrate at their establishments — in an effort to skirt paying royalties to Warner Music.
“Happy Birthday” was originally scheduled to enter the public domain in 1991, but a pair of copyright extension laws in the U.S. (not specific to this song) extended its copyright another four decades. Absent other extensions, the song was to enter public domain in the U.S. in 2030 and in the European Union at the close of 2016. But in 2015, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that the 1935 copyright applied only to the piano arraignment, not the actual song. It took longer than it should have, but movies and restaurants and everyone else are now free to wish each other a happy birthday, musically.
Related reading: “Copyright Basics” by the Library of Congress Copyright Office. Free on Kindle. Also, Little Miss Birthday, a Mr. Men/Little Miss series book. $3.99, six reviews all of 5-stars, and (obviously?) not available on Kindle.
This entry was originally written on June 22, 2011, and has since been updated to reflect a change in the law.