That Birthday Song

How many times in your life do you suppose you have sung it?

The words and melody are so simple, it might not have occurred to you that somebody actually wrote them.  At some birthday parties, it doesn’t occur to celebrants that the simple melody would sound better if everyone sang it in the same key.  The fact is, what is probably the best-known song in the English-speaking world was not only written, it is still under copyright.

“Happy Birthday to You” had its own birthday back in 1893, but it began life as “Good Morning to All”.  Sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill composed it as a start-the-school-day song for kindergartners.  (Patty worked at a school; Mildred was a pianist.)

Within a few years, the now-familiar “Happy Birthday” lyrics had been applied to the Hill sisters’ tune.  Professor Robert Brauneis of George Washington University Law School has investigated copyright issues related to the song and found sheet music for it that dates to 1912.  Paul Collins, writing for, discovered it in print with “happy birthday” words even earlier than that.

What no one seems to know for sure is how “Happy Birthday to You” became so popular, but by the 1930s it was part of the culture.  It was broadcast by radio stations, Western Union used it as a singing telegram, it was appearing in Broadway shows.  That’s when a third Hill sister, Jessica, took legal action.

She had been administering the copyright of “Good Morning to All” for her family, and in 1934 she managed to get a court to see the similarity between that song and “Happy Birthday to You”.  Take a moment to imagine a judge listening over and over to the complexities of those six notes just to be sure he ruled correctly.

The Hills were granted the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You” and split profits with a publishing partner, the Summy Company.  The publishing rights are currently owned by Warner Music Group.  OK, so how much do you think “Happy Birthday to You” is worth?  No — more.  It generates approximately $2 million a year in royalties!

How is that possible, you may wonder, and the answer is that whenever it is publicly performed, someone owes Warner, which splits profits with the Hill Foundation.  Does that mean that you’ll be led away in handcuffs if they catch you singing it to Uncle Tony in your living room?  No, that’s not considered public performance.

However, Marilyn Monroe’s hormonal tribute to President Kennedy probably violated copyright laws.  Even if she got away with not paying back then, any filmmaker who shows footage of it now certainly has to ante up.  If it’s used in a television show or at a concert or in a commercial — if it’s the soundtrack for one of those musical greeting cards — those all require royalty payments.

The copyright laws have changed a couple of times since 1935, resulting in an extended life for the original copyright.  Warner Music can keep collecting until the song becomes “public domain” — in 2030!

There are those, including Professor Brauneis,who believe the copyright is no longer legally valid, but rather than go to the time and expense of challenging it in court, companies that want to publicly use “Happy Birthday to You” just cough up the $5-10 thousand that Warner Music charges for its use.

By the way, I didn’t do extensive research on this little detail, but as far as I can tell, no copyright has been granted for the “and many more!” part.  I know what you’re thinking, and I say go for it — it could be worth a bundle if you can prove you created it.

13 responses to “That Birthday Song

  1. and our grandson thinks that this is another way of saying I love you and will embrace, say I love you and in a whispering view, say “Happy Birthday”. Absolutely hilarious……………………
    enjoy him this weekend


  2. Thanks, Jackie. I guess you could say that the “genius” of the Hill sisters’ composition is its simplicity, because two-year-olds can master it. And, as you point out, kids can make it sound pretty heartfelt, too.

  3. Wow! This is interesting to know. I’m just glad that I don’t have to pay any royalties after singing it today to Liam.

    • Yes, as long as you didn’t sing it in an arena you’re probably OK, Jody. And happy birthday to Liam — I heard about his memorable “party” in the emergency room!

  4. Where is the foundation and what have they done with the money-
    the real
    Patty Hill

    • Hi, Patricia! Apparently they left you out of the will, eh? The other Patty Hill died in 1946; Mildred passed away thirty years before that. Both were unmarried and childless, so I’m not sure where the Hill Foundation money is going. There’s a nephew, I believe, and I came across a mention of some of the royalties going to charity, but I don’t have any details beyond that.

  5. I hope restaurants must pay a royalty every time the servers gather around an embarrassed patron and sing that silly song in five keys. They deserve to be punished.

  6. I’m going on a birthday strike! I’m not growing one minute older until this song is completely released to Public Domain.

    • Excellent strategy, David. And in the meantime, we’ll sing an annual Gregorian chant in your honor.

      • Gregorian chants are an excellent choice! Thanks! (Not aging, even for a good cause, is really tiring. Gregorian chants put the perk back in ya).

  7. Thanks for a childhood full of fun birthdays and songs! (And birthdays, I suppose…)

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