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Birthday

The Unusual History of the ‘Happy Birthday’ Song

May 25, 2021

From exploring why we celebrate turning one year older to discovering birthday traditions around the world, our series “All About Birthdays” brings you fun facts on everything birthday.

With its simple lyrics and catchy six-note melody, “Happy Birthday to You” is one of the best-known songs in the world. Just about everyone is familiar with it, as its sung aloud each year before the guest of honor blows out the birthday-cake candles.

It’s been translated into at least 18 languages, and it’s part of millions of birthday celebrations for people of all ages every year. Marilyn Monroe gave a memorable rendition of it to President John F. Kennedy, and it even found its way into space when the crew of the Apollo IX sang it during their mission in 1969.

But dig a little deeper into the history of this classic piece of American music, and you’ll find it was protected for decades by global copyright. Anyone wanting to use the song commercially — such as in a film, public performance, or even a musical greeting card — had to pay a fee to music publisher Warner Chappell Music. The royalties made the company about $2 million each year.

How ‘Happy Birthday to You’ became part of the public domain

"Happy Birthday" sign

Filmmaker Jennifer Nelson was one of those who paid the fee — $1,500 to secure the rights for her documentary about the song and its history — but something struck her as wrong about the copyright. In 2013, Jennifer filed a class-action suit that ultimately resulted in “Happy Birthday to You” becoming part of the public domain in 2015.

“The whole experience was one big adventure, and one thing led to the next, which led us to a three-year lawsuit and the ultimate liberation of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song,” Jennifer says.

So who wrote “Happy Birthday to You” and how did it end up in a copyright battle? The answers can be found in Jennifer’s award-winning short film, “Saving Happy Birthday,” which was commissioned by The Guardian.

From ‘Good Morning to All’ to ‘Happy Birthday to You’

In 1883, Mildred J. Hill was teaching kindergarten at a school in her native Kentucky where her sister, Patty Smith Hill, served as principal. The sisters collaborated on an easy-to-sing and easy-to-remember song for teachers to welcome young students to class each day. Mildred created the melody and Patty penned the lyrics for the song they called “Good Morning to All.”

Good morning to you,

Good morning to you,

Good morning, dear children,

Good morning to all!

Some years later, the sisters tweaked their lyrics for a birthday party, Jennifer found. As part of her filming, she visited the Little Loom House in Kentucky, the Hill family’s summer cabin where “Happy Birthday to You” song was born.

Jennifer Nelson

The Hills swapped out the lyrics for a song they wrote in 1883 called ‘Good Morning to All’ and replaced the lyrics with ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ using the same melody.

Jennifer Nelson

Author

Saving Happy Birthday

“The Hills would have parties and strawberry festivals at the cabins, and enjoy the coolness of the woods,” Jennifer says. “One summer, it was one of the Hill sisters’ friends’ — Lysette Hest’s — birthday, and Patty and Mildred decided to celebrate her birthday by singing a song.”

“The Hills swapped out the lyrics for a song they wrote in 1883 called ‘Good Morning to All’ and replaced the lyrics with ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ using the same melody,” Jennifer says. “It was a hit!”

Although the Hill sisters had no way of knowing just how popular their song would eventually become, they did have some idea of how much people liked it, Jennifer says.

“The Hills were part of the kindergarten movement — the first time that young children went to school — and went to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and presented their book, Song Stories for the Kindergarten, which featured the ‘Happy Birthday’ song.” The copyright for the Hills’ songbook expired in 1921.

Kids singing "Happy Birthday"

The song’s fame, however, was just beginning. By the 1930s, Jennifer says, “Happy Birthday to You” was featured in the first Western Union singing telegram as well as Irving Berlin’s Broadway musical, As Thousands Cheer.

At this point, Jessica Hill, a third Hill sister, entered the picture. Working with the Clayton F. Summy Company, publisher of her older sisters’ songbook, Jessica Hill secured a new copyright for the birthday song in 1935.

Under the laws at the time, this copyright would have expired, allowing the song to enter the public domain by 1991. However, several copyright extension acts permitted the rights to last until at least 2030.

Something to celebrate

Birthday confetti

By the time Jennifer entered the picture, Warner Chappell Music, which bought the publishing company that owned the rights to the song for $25 million in 1988, was making $2 million in royalties each year off “Happy Birthday to You.”

However, in his 2015 decision, federal judge George H. King ruled that the 1935 copyright that the Summy Company obtained granted rights only to certain arrangements of the music for the piano, not to the actual song itself.

King, therefore, ruled that Warner Chappell Music did not own the rights to the song and declared it part of the public domain. The publishing company agreed to pay $14 million in the settlement, ending its copyright claim and its ability to collect royalties. As a result, Jennifer got her $1,500 back.

From a song originally intended to welcome children to school to being the most recognized song in the English language, “Happy Birthday to You” has come a long way since its inception. Now that you know a little more about its history, you might be inspired to belt it out with even more gusto at the next birthday party you attend.

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