“Happy Birthday to You” has to be one of, if not the, best-known song around the globe. Around the world people’s ears prick up when they catch a whiff of that celebratory standard. Even in places such as Russia the “happy birthday” song is used as the default jingle on that special day, oftentimes accompanied by the English lyrics. This song carries that much cultural weight. The tune is instantly recognizable and catchy and it is taken for granted that this immortal melody will be heard at least once a year for most people ad infinitum.
Although the song has been translated into at least 18 languages, the original version in English still remains the most recognizable tune of all time, confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998. The famous melody actually originates from another song, called “Good Morning to All”, which was written by Patty and Mildred J. Hill. The American sisters wrote the song in 1893 as a children song. Mildred, who was a pianist and a composer, wrote the tune, while Patty, a principal of an experimental kindergarten, wrote the lyrics.
The song was honored at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, together with its creators. The song was easy to remember, so children had no problem learning it. The first combination of the melody with the lyrics of “Happy Birthday to You” was first published in 1912, but it was probably used earlier.
In the beginning, there were no copyrights over the song, and it was free to use. The Summy Company registered a copyright in 1935 when Preston Ware Orem and R.R. Forman were credited as authors of the tune. Warner/Chappell Music, a division of Warner Music Group, acquired Summy Company in 1998, becoming the owner of the rights over “Happy Birthday to You”. Warner paid $25 million for the company, and the value of the famous song was estimated to be around $5 million.
Warner stated that the copyright of the song will last until 2030, according to the 1935 registration. The company claimed that public performances of the song which are not authorized by them are illegal and that royalties should be paid to Warner.
Such was the case in February 2010 when a single performance of “Happy Birthday to You” was charged $700 in the form of royalties. This song became the highest-earning single in history. Since it was created, the song has earned about $50 million. In Europe, the expiry date of the song’s copyright was 31 December 2016.
The American law professor Robert Brauneis is the man responsible for the copyright removal. The professor did some extensive research on the song and came to the conclusion that the song is not bound by any copyright since 2010. Three years later, Good Morning to You Productions, a company which was making a documentary about the “Good Morning to All” song, sued Warner/Chappell for a false claim over the copyrights of the popular song.
In September 2014, the copyright claim of Warner/Chappell was overthrown as false by a federal judge. A conclusion was made that only a specific piano arrangement of “Happy Birthday to You” is a subject of copyright, but the lyrics and the melody are not. Warner/Chappell paid a $14 million fine in February 2016, and the song was finally made available jn the public domain.
So at the next birthday when you hear this melody, you’ll know the real story and history behind what is perhaps the most famous and enduring tune ever created.