Happy Birthday to You (Copyright, History, Interesting Facts)

Happy Birthday to You is one of the most famous songs in the history of music. The copyright of the song has been subject to controversy ever since it was published in 1893.

According to the Guinness World Records, it is the most recognized song in English, followed only by another birthday classic, For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow. Translated into at least eighteen different languages, Happy Birthday to You is also a global anthem to the good times and the celebration of life, family, friendship.

The history of this song, however, is more intricate than it seems. Its copyright status is quite a quandary too.

Let’s try to shed some light on this very well-known piece of music.

Good Morning to You

Notably, the melody for Happy Birthday to You derives from another old song called Good Morning to You.

Back in the 19th century, two sisters owned a kindergarten in Louisville, Kentucky. Patty and Mildred Hill used to sing Good Morning to You with their pupils and decided to publish the tune in 1893 with publisher Clayton F. Summy.

This publication, however, raised quite a lot of eyebrows even at that time. Good Morning to You was considered too similar to other popular children’s songs, such as Happy Greetings to All. Nevertheless, the copyright was granted and the first version of the great birthday classic saw light.

The lyrics, however, were different and simply read “Good morning to you./Good morning to you./Good morning, dear children./Good morning to you”.

We had to wait until 1901 to see the complete text of Happy Birthday to You come to light as part of Edith Goodyear Alger’s poem Roy’s Birthday.

From 1901 to 1933, different publications included a sort of mash-up between the sister Hill’s song and Alger’s verses, drafting the birthday tune as we know it today.

Copyright issues

As we briefly saw in the previous paragraph, even the Hill sisters had to face some degree of controversy when they published their song. Later on, the copyright issues surrounding the composition became more and more intricate.

The original publisher Clayton F. Summy renewed the copyright registration of the song, with an additional verse and a specific piano arrangement by Preston Ware Orem, in 1935, granting to his company full rights on the composition.

In 1957, the company changed its name to Summy-Birchard, becoming a division of Birch Tree Group Limited in 1970. In 1988 the whole company was acquired by Warner/Chappell for 25 million dollars. Not a big amount, considering that Happy Birthday to You would generate about 5000$ a day to the major publisher (in 2008).

Now, if you think this had put an end to the troubles, you’ll have to think again!

In 2013, filmmaker Jennifer Nelson sued Warner/Chappell after paying 1500$ for a license to use Happy Birthday to You in a documentary about the history of the song.

Two years later, it was finally proved that Warner/Chappell could only secure royalties on the specific piano arrangement registred by Summy in 1935. The previous edition, in fact, wasn’t properly registered according to the procedures required at that time.

Is the song in the public domain?

Despite the conclusion of the court, it was still wrong to declare Happy Birthday to You in the public domain. The judge had simply stated that Warner/Chappell wasn’t the copyright owner, but without specifying the public domain status of the song.

However, since no one else claimed the copyright, the song is now de facto in the public domain.

If you’re curious about how a song goes into the public domain, here’s a little explanation: the copyright of a song expires 70 years after the death of its composer.

Since Patty Hill died in 1946, the song is now in the public domain both in the United States and Europe.

What key is the song in?

Now, let’s get to the juice and see how musicians can perform this tune (finally) in the public domain.

Happy Birthday to You can be performed in many different keys, although the most recurring one is a simple C major. The chord progression is really simple: I – V7 – I, IV – I – V7 – I.

It can be sung potentially in any language, traditionally as the birthday cake makes its appearance at the party.

Happy Birthday to You is part of our global heritage. It is frankly a relief it is now recognized as in the public domain, as its popularity surely made it part of our everyday culture.

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