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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 J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill. Patty Smith Hill, born in 1868, was a nursery school and 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, started out as a kindergarten and Sunday-school teacher like her sister, but her career path took a musical turn, and Mildred became an composer, organist, concert pianist, and a musical scholar with an speciality in the field of Negro spirituals. One day in 1893, while Mildred was teaching at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School where her sister served as principal, she came up with the modest melody we now know as "Happy Birthday"; sister Patty added some simple lyrics and completed the creation of "Good Morning to All," a simple 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.
The Hills' catchy little tune was unleashed upon the world in 1893, when it was published in the songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. (The composition of "Good Morning to All" is often erroneously reported as having occurred in 1859 by sources that confuse Mildred Hill's birth date with the year she created the melody.) After the song proved more popular as a serenade for students to sing to their teachers (rather than vice-versa), it evolved into a version with the word "teacher" replacing "children" and a final line matching the first two, and "Good Morning to All" became more popularly known as "Good Morning to You." (Ironically, in light of the copyright battles to come, "Good Morning to All" bore more than a passing resemblance to the songs "Happy Greetings to All" and "Good Night to You All," both published in 1858.)

Here the trail becomes murky — nobody really knows who wrote the words to "Happy Birthday to You" and put them to the Hills' melody, or when it happened. The "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics first appeared in a songbook edited by one
Robert H. Coleman in March of 1924, where they were published as a second stanza to "Good Morning to You"; with the advent of radio and sound films, "Happy Birthday" was widely popularized as a birthday celebration song, and its lyrics supplanted the originals. 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. By demonstrating the undeniable similarities between "Good Morning to All" and "Happy Birthday to You" in court, Jessica was able to secure the copyright of "Happy Birthday to You" for her sisters in 1934 (too late, unfortunately, to benefit Mildred, who had died in 1916).

The Chicago-based music publisher Clayton F. Summy Company, working with Jessica Hill, published and copyrighted "Happy Birthday" in 1935. Under the laws in effect at the time, the Hills' 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." (In yet another bit of irony, Michael Jackson, who was introduced to the benefits of song ownership by Paul McCartney himself, eventually outbid the former Beatle for the publishing rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalog.)

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:   27 April 2007

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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.