Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: The song "Happy Birthday to You" is protected by copyright.
Origins: "Happy Birthday to You" is by far the most well-known song in the English-speaking world, and perhaps the whole world, too. For nearly a century, this simple ditty has been the traditional piece of music sung to millions of birthday celebrants every year — everyone from uncomprehending infants to
The "Happy Birthday" story begins with two sisters from Kentucky,
Good morning to you,Here the trail becomes murky: nobody really knows who wrote the words to "Happy Birthday to You" and put them to Mildred Hill's melody, or when it happened. The lyrics to "Happy Birthday to You" began appearing in conjunction with the "Good Morning to All" melody around 1910 (the earliest known book to include that combination of lyrics and
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.
By the mid-1930s, the revamped ditty had appeared in the Broadway musical The Band Wagon (1931) and had been used for Western Union's first "singing telegram" (1933), and when Irving Berlin's musical As Thousands Cheer made yet another uncredited and uncompensated use of the "Good Morning to All" melody, Jessica Hill, a third Hill sister who administered the copyright to "Good Morning to All" on behalf of her sisters, sprang into action and filed suit. (That lawsuit was eventually dismissed for lack of prosecution, and the reasons why the case did not move forward are unknown. It's possible the two parties reaches an undisclosed settlement, but no record of such an outcome exists.)
The Chicago-based music publisher
Does this mean that everyone who warbles "Happy Birthday to You" to family members at birthday parties is engaging in copyright infringement if they fail to obtain permission from or pay royalties to the song's publisher? No. Royalties are due, of course, for commercial uses of the song, such as playing or singing it for profit, using it in movies, television programs, and stage shows, or incorporating it into musical products such as watches and greeting cards; as well, royalties are due for public performance, defined by copyright law as performances which occur "at a place open to the public, or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered." So, crooning "Happy Birthday to You" to family members and friends at home is fine, but performing a copyrighted work in a public setting such as a restaurant or a sports arena technically requires a license from ASCAP or the Harry Fox Agency (although such infringements are rarely prosecuted).
A common rumor holds that Paul McCartney owns the publishing rights to "Happy Birthday to You," but that rumor is false. Although Paul McCartney did buy up many song catalogs after seeing the publishing rights to most of his Beatles songs slip away in a series of bad business deals (his MPL Communications is now one of the world's largest privately-owned music publishing firms and controls the rights to the Buddy Holly catalog, among others), he does not own (and never has owned) the publishing rights to "Happy Birthday to You."
Who does own the publishing rights to "Happy Birthday to You"? They were acquired by a New York accountant named John F. Sengstack when he bought the
As writer Bruce Anderson noted in "Beyond Measure," his excellent article on the "Happy Birthday" phenomenon:
The next time you hear "Happy Birthday" in a movie — and now that you’re listening, it won't beLast updated: 28 July 2014
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