Today I found out the song “Happy Birthday” is copyrighted and brings in about $2,000,000 per year to the copyright holders (currently an investment group that purchased Warner Music who in turn was the most recent owner of the copyright for the song).
The original tune for the song was created by sisters Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. The title to the song they created with that tune was “Good Morning to All”, which was a sort of classroom greeting song for Kindergartners (one was a kindergarten teacher and the other a former kindergarten teacher and at that time, principal).
The copyright for the words and music of “Good Morning to All” has since expired and the song is part of the public domain. Interestingly, this tune was almost exactly like popular songs of the day “Happy Greetings to All”; “Good Night to You All”; “A Happy New Year to All”; and many others.
So how did “Good Morning to All” become “Happy Birthday to You”? Nobody knows, but this didn’t stop a lot of people in the last 100 years from making a boatload of money on the simple song.
The tune itself, with the lyrics “Good Morning to All”, was originally published in a songbook “Song Stories for the Kindergarten”. The tune combined with the lyrics first showed up around 19 years later in a 1912 songbook, without including any credits or copyright notices. It is thought that the song predates this songbook and perhaps was commonly sung at this time, though no print references have been found before this.
Fast forward to 1935, where the Summy Company registered for the copyright for the song Happy Birthday, crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman. This was the same company that originally published the “Good Morning to All” song for the Hill sisters and at the backing of the surviving Hill sister, applied for the copyright. Previous to this, Happy Birthday was published in numerous song books throughout the country with various composers being referenced and no copyright stated. Once they received the copyright, the Summy Company then formed a separate company, Birth Tree Group Limited, to protect the song’s copyright.
Now, it should be noted here that neither of the Hill sisters had any children and, at the time of the copyright, the one who wrote the simple music tune itself was long dead. Currently, the proceeds of the copyright are presumed to be all profit for the company that owns the copyright, though it is rumored that perhaps the Hill sisters nephew (from their other sister) receives a portion of the annual income from the song, but this has never been publicly confirmed.
So here’s where the legal fun begins. The company that currently owns the song, Warner Music, which is owned by an investment group, claims that the song is still copyrighted, even though most legal experts say otherwise; indeed, many say that it should have never been copyrightable due to the fact that no one knows who put the words to the tune and the tune itself, or an extremely similar version, was very common at the time when the Hill sisters used it in their “Good Morning to All” song. The exact tune, as applied to “Good Morning to All”, is also in the public domain. So if the tune is in the public domain and nobody knows who put the words to the tune, then nobody should hold the copyright. That’s the argument.
Warner music, however, still insist that the copyright doesn’t expire until 2030. Through this, they make a couple million per year collecting revenue from any film, tv show, radio, or public performance of the song. This includes if you were to sing Happy Birthday to someone in a restaurant, for instance, which is why restaurants that have their employees sing a Happy Birthday song make their own.
Basically, the only legal way you are allowed to sing Happy Birthday to anyone without paying is if it’s a small gathering of family and/or friends and not in a public setting. You also aren’t allowed to have someone not a family or friend be the lead performer of the song in these small groups. Any other place you want to sing it, you have to pay or you are violating their copyright, according to them.
Professor of law Robert Brauneis disagrees, “It is almost certainly no longer under copyright. Many question the validity of the current copyright, as the melody of the song was most likely borrowed from other popular songs of the time, and the lyrics were likely improvised by a group of five- and six-year-old children who never received any compensation.”
If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also enjoy:
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- The Melody for the Star Spangled Banner was Taken from a Drinking Song
- The Momentous “Rock Around the Clock” Song Almost Never Was
- The Beatles Song Named for a Woman that was About a Man
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- “Happy Birthday to You” is officially the world’s most recognized song, according to the Guinness Book of World Records; number 2 on that list is “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”; number 3 is “Auld Lang Syne”.
- Patty Hill Smith also developed the “Patty Hill blocks”, which were once used in schools nationwide.
- Happy Birthday was the first song ever sung in outer space, assuming no aliens beat us to the punch. It was sung by Apollo IX astronauts on March 8th, 1969.
- If you are in a room with 23 or more people in it, then there is a 50% chance at least 2 people in the room have the same birthday. If you go up to 60 people, then there is a 99% chance that two of the people in the room have the same birthday.
- In an effort to make more money off a mostly worthless product, in 1912, the Jewelers of America invented a “birthstone” calendar assigning specific expensive (and useless) stones to time periods. This was largely successful and the birthstone calendar they came up with is still in use today. Later, they managed to convince everybody that diamonds are really valuable, even though you can literally pick them up off the ground in certain places in Africa; which many African slaves currently do all day, everyday, or they get shot or mutilated by warlords who then sell the uncut diamonds to eventually get sold to us as the ultimate romantic gift; of course after about a 10000% markup and storing most of what they buy so that they don’t flood the market with so many diamonds at once that people realize they aren’t really rare. Thanks De Beers!
- The month that the most living people in the U.S. have birthdays on is August; February is the month with the least.
- In the U.S., the most babies are born on Tuesday, with Sunday seeing the least births.
- The President, or rather workers at the White House using the President’s signature, will send any newborn American citizen a birthday card if you send the baby’s name, address, and birth date to: White House Greetings Office, Room 39, Washington, DC 20500.
- If you are American and manage to live to over 80 years old, you can also get a signed certificate from the President, commemorating this accomplishment. Send that letter to: The Greetings Office, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C. 20500.
- If you are curious how the song “Good Morning to All” went, here it is:
- Good morning to you,
- Good morning to you,
- Good morning, dear children,
- Good morning to all.
- Also if you are wondering, Patty Hill wrote the lyrics and Mildred borrowed the tune from similar works of the day. Yes, it took two people to write that song and they needed to borrow most of the simple tune to it…
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