« Global Warming circa 10,000 BC | Main | Rediscover Polaroid »

Happy Birthday To You

Birthday20cake “Happy Birthday To You” is perhaps the most recognizable and well-known song across the English-speaking world.  Many of us learned to sing this tune in different languages as children.  In China, Japan, and Argentina, they sing Happy Birthday.  If you are connected to Western culture, even remotely, you’ve heard this song before.  Many musicologists consider it to be the most popular song in the world.

If that's the case, why don't TV characters sing “Happy Birthday” like you would at home? Ever wonder why each chain restaurant makes up its own birthday tune?

The reason is simple: though the song was written in 1893 it remains under copyright.  All public performance or use in commerical entertainment requires the performer to pay a fee to the copyright owner. 

“Happy Birthday To You” was written by Mildred J Hill and Patty Smith Hill, sisters from Louisville, Kentucky.  Patty was a kindergarten teacher and notable figure in education.  She taught students but also served on the faculty at Columbia University’s Teachers College.  Mildred, although also a school teacher, had considerable musical experience.  In 1893, Mildred was teaching kindergarten at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School where her sister, Patty, served as principal. 

After what must have been several nights burning the midnight oil in a creative fervor, the modest six-note melody had been completed.  Albeit, with alternate lyrics:

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.

Although written for teachers to sing to their students, the reverse seemed more popular.  The song became a modest success with children after having been published in the 1893 songbook, “Song Stories for the Kindergarten”. 

At some point between 1893 and 1924, an unknown individual wrote the modern lyrics to the song and then the tune began to really catch on.  In 1924, a songbook edited by Robert H Coleman put the Happy Birthday lyrics to paper for the first time.  By the mid-1930’s the song was etched into American culture.  It had become the popular song of birthday celebrations.  There is record of it appearing in Broadway musicals.  It was even used for Western Union’s first ‘singing telegram’. 

In 1934, Jessica Hill, sister of Mildred and Patty, decided to protect her family’s creation.  She presented evidence to the court that “Happy Birthday To You” used the melody her sisters had written for “Good Morning To All”.  The court agreed and a copyright was granted for the melody. 

By the law in force at the time, the copyright was to expire 56 years later.  In 1976, the entertainment industry feared that music, novels, and other creative works from the beginning of the century would enter the public domain.  In response, Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976 which extended all copyrights.  Then in 1998, when the song, and other creative works of that era, were again to become public domain, Congress acted again.  The Copyright Act of 1998 extended the song’s protection through 2030.

If we leave arguments about an infinitely extendable copyright aside, we come to questions inquiring minds are asking.  How much money do the licensing rights for “Happy Birthday To You” generate?  How gets that money?  What it is used for?

Milred and Patty shared their copyright with a record label that eventually became Time-Warner music.  Mildred died in 1916 and Patty passed away in 1946.  Both were unmarried and childless so they bequeathed their copyright into a foundation and left its control to their nephew Archibald Hill. 

The song has been an incredible cash cow.  Its use in a single major motion picture can generate $50,000.  In 1996, Time-Warner Music estimated the song's revenue at $2 million a year.

Hill, the heir, was a linguistics professor who managed the income from the copyright through the Hill Foundation.  As his aunts had intended, most of the money went to education: either to enlarge the linguistics library at his university, support research into educational practices, or to grant scholarships to children. 

When he died in 1992, he willed ownership of his own personal assets to his nurse, Muriel Wright and control of the Hill Foundation to the Maryland-based non-profit, the Association for Childhood Education International.  Fourteen years later though, the Maryland-based foundation claims they have yet to receive any money for their share of the copyright.  Lawsuits have been filed and they aren't fighting over chump change.  The value of back payments could exceed $20 million.

As writer Bruce Anderson noted in his article about "Happy Birthday To You":

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.

February 9, 2006 in Politics | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Happy Birthday To You:


Let's step into the Wayback Machine for a moment. I can recall watching the PBS show "The Electric Company," which had shorts featuring Spider-Man. In one of these, one character sings the first two lines of "Happy Birthday to You" to the first bar of "The Star-Spangled Banner." This stood out to me even as a child, because I'd heard the usual "Birthday" melody a number of times by then. When I eventually learned that the song is copyrighted, the difference in melody made sense. Thanks for filling us in on the details regarding this song!

Posted by: Schizohedron | Aug 16, 2006 5:14:51 PM

Hmm. I wonder if appropriate royalties on the song were paid when Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy in a performance at Madison Square Garden.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 1, 2008 9:27:56 PM