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,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.)
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 the Hills' melody, or when it happened. The "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics first appeared in a songbook edited by one
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." (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
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: 27 April 2007
This material may not be reproduced without permission.
snopes and the snopes.com logo are registered service marks of snopes.com.