Now Everyone Can Sing Happy Birthday!

In 1893, Patty and Mildred Hill composed the Good Morning Song and sang it to Patty’s kindergarten class. In 1922, the sisters published the Everyday Song Book containing the Good Morning and Birthday Song. The Summy Company bought the rights in 1935. For the next eighty years royalties have been collected for singing the popular tune. When Warner/Chappell bought the song in 1988, singing it in movies, restaurants, or any other paying venue, could cost up to $10,000. That’s why you seldom hear the song sung in movies. Restaurants like Red Robin composed their own Happy Birthday song to stay out of trouble. Customers could sing it in restaurants, but not the staff.

Happy Birthday Song

On September 22nd, after years of disputing the rights to the song, Judge George H. King ruled Happy Birthday to You should never have been copyrighted. He concluded the original arrangement is protected, but not the song. For the first time since 1935 singing Happy Birthday to You in paying establishments is free.

What does this mean to you? We’ve always had the right to sing it as long as we weren’t getting paid. We will start hearing it on television and in movies. Free songs like Auld Lang Syne will be shelved to collect dust along with For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Both songs were played as substitutes. I could only find a lame rendition of Happy Birthday on YouTube, uploaded yesterday, but would imagine hundreds will appear over the next month.

What does this mean to me? Most likely, my Happy Birthday post discussing Warner/Chappell’s fines, will dwindle. It went viral on Reddit back in December 2014 getting over 50,000 views in twenty-four hours.

What about all the people and businesses who paid huge copyright fees and fines to Warner/Chappell over the last twenty-seven years? I wouldn’t be surprised to see some lawsuits arise to retrieve their costs. The key to these claims will hinge on the Judge’s words. According to the LA Times, the Judge said Warner/Chappell never had the right to charge for the use of the song.

Last week, I ate in a Falmouth restaurant in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The piano player sang Happy Birthday to one of the waitresses and everyone from the restaurant joined in. I straightened up and wondered if the Judge’s verdict had finally been handed down. The piano man must have been optimistic or psychic. Either way, the public serenade was the first of many more to come.

Did you know about the Happy Birthday copyright? What do you think about artists’ rights and royalties?

52 thoughts on “Now Everyone Can Sing Happy Birthday!

  1. I think I knew something very vague about this but it hasn’t stopped people singing Happy Birthday here in Australia as far as I know. I could be wrong. Talk about madness!

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  2. This is so interesting! I had no idea. I’ve been in several restaurants who have the staff sing the song to their customers who are celebrating a birthday (much to my introverted chagrin…). I wonder if they had permission. Guess now they don’t have to!

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  3. I became aware of it not being in the public domain about four and a half years ago when I wrote a post about the brain storm I had to shoot a video with my colleague playing the birthday song on his saxophone for a friend’s birthday. I was getting by on fumes at that time, so I had to come up with a creative gift. My post didn’t go viral like yours (I also had about seven followers then), but that video with the song played free jazz-style has gotten thousands of hits on YouTube. http://wp.me/pMku1-QF I didn’t see that coming.

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    • I looked for a YouTube video and there really aren’t any. I didn’t see your friend’s jazz version, but I wrote this in a hurry this morning and only scrolled down the first page. I would guess we’ll hear it everywhere now!

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  4. I had no idea. The whole concept is crazy – how on earth that was successfully copyrighted is a mystery. The greeting is one which would be given without any prompting or precedent, and if one could copyright a melody line then most composers, including Beethoven, would have been guilty of infringement.

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  5. Several year ago, I worked in a Mexican style restaurant and we’d sing a different version – the words since lost to memory reboot. I didn’t know about the copyright, but heard about it this morning on the way to school while listening NPR. I can see both sides – I don’t want people copying my work and using it for their profit, but on the flip-side, I am not selling what I write – but it’s mine as long as I am here. If I sold it and someone copied and used it for their gain, I can see it. However, according to NPR, the some was something of a cash cow generating close to $2 million each year. Hard to lose that chunk of change and stay in the black. Have a great week, Fall is here!

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    • I figured it was a huge sum, but $2,000,000? Wow. Yep. The original was slightly different from what we sing or it would still be protected.
      You bring up a good point. Why do we feel like it’s our right to have something for free just because it becomes popular? I come from a background in art and cringe when I see it ripped off and made into memes, headers, etc., online.

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  6. This is so helpful, Susie, thanks for being such a goldmine of info! I’ll be curious whether video-making software such as Animoto will now include it in their song list, although I recently heard that the Happy Birthday song is available on Creative Commons.

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    • As recent as yesterday!
      The song is now free to sing anywhere, but I wonder what the backlash will be to and from Warner/Chappell. There’s another hearing coming up. I’m all for copyrighting and royalties, but their prices were crazy high. Ha! I just realized why no one goes by their initials. WC! 🙂

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    • I stumbled on it being copyrighted a few years ago when researching birthday traditions for a historical post. It’s been in contention for years! Now it will seem weird to hear Happy Birthday in movies and on TV. We’ll probably get pretty sick of it. Ha!

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  7. Wait, we’ve always had the right to sing it as long as we weren’t getting paid?! You mean I’ve been sending royalties to Warner/Chappell for all these years for nothing! Damn. But seriously, I’m not sure I did know it was copyrighted until hearing the news this week that it no longer wasn’t!

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    • Right. It surprised me when I found out a couple years ago. But then I noticed it was rarely sung on TV or in movies. I think it’s great when songs are copyrighted since it’s owned by the artist, but their fees seemed way out of line.
      You might get all your paid royalties back! That’s up in the next trial! 🙂

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  8. Luckily they never sued any of my friends and family for singing it on the (cough cough) number of occasions I’ve had a birthday! 🙂

    In general – and certainly for us freelance/solo artists, writers etc – I think it’s fair that those who create intellectual property should receive due return on their time and creativity. Right now I’m trying to enforce my copyrights over my own intellectual property, which a New Zealand government website seems to have appropriated – my first approaches were dismissed, and the latest from them is that because my work wasn’t specifically endnoted, they didn’t use it and therefore the appearance on their website, under someone else’s name, of my chapter titles, some of my specific wording, my photo selection and my interpretation is purely a matter (and I quote ) of ’great minds thinking alike’. Quite.

    In the same sense, when an intellectual property right is divorced from the creator (for instance, through sale of copyright) and reduced to a corporate product, it’s also fair that the corporation gets due return on investment. However, to pursue those same intellectual property rights for something that has wide social currency, 80 years or more after creation and certainly well after any reasonable return has presumably been earned? I think the court judgement speaks in this case.

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  9. That’s great. Restaurant staff will no longer have to put on sunglasses and a long coat, sidle up to customers, and then whisper while looking the other way, “Psst, Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you…”

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