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Home --> Music --> Song Meanings --> Happy Birthday, We'll Sue

Happy Birthday, We'll Sue

Claim:   The song "Happy Birthday to You" is protected by copyright.

Status:   True.

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 Birthday millions of birthday celebrants every year — everyone from uncomprehending infants to U.S. presidents; it has been performed in space; and it has been incorporated into untold millions of music boxes, watches, musical greeting cards, and other tuneful products. It therefore surprises many to discover that this ubiquitous song, a six-note melody composed in the 19th century and accompanied by a six-word set of repetitive lyrics, is still protected by copyright — and will be for decades to come.

The "Happy Birthday" story begins with two sisters from Kentucky, Mildred Jane Hill and Patty Smith Hill. Patty Smith Hill, born in 1868, was a kindergarten teacher and an influential educator who developed the "Patty Hill blocks" used in schools nationwide, served on the faculty of the Columbia University Teachers College for thirty years, and helped found the Institute of Child Welfare Research at Columbia in 1924. Patty's older sister, Mildred, born in 1859, was an accomplished organist, concert pianist, composer, and a musical scholar with a speciality in what was then referred to as "Negro music." In 1889 Mildred and Patty began collaborating on composing songs for children, some of which were published in an 1893 collection entitled Song Stories for the Kindergarten. One of their first efforts along those lines was the song "Good Morning to All": Mildred came up with the modest melody (which we now know as the tune of "Happy Birthday"), and sister Patty added some simple lyrics to create a greeting song for teachers to use in welcoming students to class each day:
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.
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
melody is The Beginners' Book of Songs, published by the Cable Company in 1912), and sometime between then and 1935 the "Happy Birthday to You"/"Good Morning to All" conflation became widely established as the standard birthday song.

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 Clayton F. Summy Company, working with Jessica Hill, published "Happy Birthday" in 1934 and filed copyright registrations for the song. Under the laws in effect at the time, the copyright would have expired after one 28-year term and a renewal of similar length, falling into public domain by 1991. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 extended the term of copyright protection to 75 years from date of publication, and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another 20 years, so under current law the copyright protection of "Happy Birthday" will remain intact until at least 2030.

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 Clayton F. Summy Company in the 1930s; Sengstack eventually relocated the company to New Jersey and renamed it Birch Tree Ltd. in the 1970s. Warner Chappell (a Warner Communications division), the largest music publisher in the world, purchased Birch Tree Ltd. in late 1998 for a reported sale price of $25 million; the company then became Summy-Birchard Music, now a part of the giant AOL Time Warner media conglomerate. According to David Sengstack, president of Summy-Birchard, "Happy Birthday to You" brings in about $2 million in royalties annually, with the proceeds split between Summy-Birchard and the Hill Foundation. (Both Hill sisters died unmarried and childless, so the Hill Foundation's share of the royalties have presumably been going to charity or to nephew Archibald Hill ever since Patty Hill passed away in 1946.)

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 be long — stay for the credits at the end of the movie. Think about how Hollywood would love the story of the Hill sisters, two Southern kindergarten teachers who write a song that they only hope will be a useful teacher’s aid. Instead, the song is a hit that never goes away. It is sung hundreds of millions of times each year, a musical juggernaut that tops the efforts of Tin Pan Alley’s best. Appropriately, then, film credits are the one place left where Mildred and Patty Hill still get their due.
Last updated:   28 July 2014

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  Sources Sources:
    Anderson, Bruce.   "Beyond Measure."
    Attaché. January 2002.

    Fuld, James.   The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular and Folk.
    New York: Dover Publications, 2000.   ISBN 0-486-41475-2.

    Rivers, Scott.   "World's Most Popular Song Turns 100 This Year."
    The Salt Lake Tribune.   5 December 1993.

    Ross, Robert.   "Happy Birthday to You Too!"
    Southern Living.   1 June 1997.

    Smith, Lynn.   "Sisters Have a Hit, Year In and Year Out."
    Los Angeles Times.   5 April 1985   (p. E1).

    Associated Press.   "Company That Owns "Happy Birthday" Is for Sale."
    19 October 1998.

    Associated Press.   "Company That Owns Happy Birthday Sold for $25 Million."
    19 December 1998.