"Happy Birthday to You", also known more simply as "Happy Birthday", is a song that is traditionally sung to celebrate the anniversary of a person's birth. According to the 1998 Guinness World Records, "Happy Birthday to You" is the most recognized song in the English language, followed by "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". The song's base lyrics have been translated into at least 18 languages. The melody of "Happy Birthday to You" comes from the song "Good Morning to All", which has traditionally been attributed to American sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill in 1893, although the claim that the sisters composed the tune is disputed.
Patty Hill was a kindergarten principal in Louisville, Kentucky, developing various teaching methods at what is now the Little Loomhouse; her sister Mildred was a pianist and composer. The sisters used "Good Morning to All" as a song that young children would find easy to sing. The combination of melody and lyrics in "Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print in 1912, and probably existed even earlier.
None of the early appearances of the "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics included credits or copyright notices. The Summy Company registered a copyright in 1935, crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R. R. Forman. In 1988, Warner/Chappell Music purchased the company owning the copyright for US$25 million, with the value of "Happy Birthday" estimated at US$5 million. Based on the 1935 copyright registration, Warner claimed that the United States copyright will not expire until 2030, and that unauthorized public performances of the song are illegal unless royalties are paid to Warner. In one specific instance in February 2010, these royalties were said to amount to US$700. By one estimate, the song is the highest-earning single song in history, with estimated earnings since its creation of US$50 million. In the European Union, the copyright of the song was set to expire no later than December 31, 2016.
The American copyright status of "Happy Birthday to You" began to draw more attention with the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Act in Eldred v. Ashcroft in 2003, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer specifically mentioned "Happy Birthday to You" in his dissenting opinion. American law professor Robert Brauneis, who extensively researched the song, concluded in 2010 that "It is almost certainly no longer under copyright." In 2013, based in large part on Brauneis's research, Good Morning to You Productions, a company producing a documentary about "Good Morning to All", sued Warner/Chappell for falsely claiming copyright to the song. In September 2015, a federal judge declared that the Warner/Chappell copyright claim was invalid, ruling that the copyright registration applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song, and not to its lyrics and melody. In February 2016 Warner/Chappell settled for US $14 million, paving the way for the song to become public domain.
"Happy birthday to you"
- Happy birthday to you
- Happy birthday to you
- Happy birthday dear [NAME]
- Happy birthday to you.
The person whose birthday is being celebrated is filled in for "[NAME]". The earliest known publication used "John" as the example.
Lyrics with melody
It is traditional, among English-speakers, that at a birthday party, the song "Happy Birthday to You" be sung to the birthday person by the other guests celebrating the birthday. More specifically, the birthday person is traditionally presented with a birthday cake with lit candles, with the number of candles sometimes corresponding to the age of the person. After the song is sung (usually just once), party guests sometimes add wishes like "and many more!" expressing the hope that the birthday person will enjoy a long life. The birthday person may be asked to make a wish ("Make a wish!")—which he or she does silently—and then is supposed to blow out the candles. Traditionally, blowing out of the candles is believed (or is considered a lighthearted superstition) to ensure that the wish will come true. Once the candles have been blown out, people may applaud, after which the cake may be served, often with the first piece being served to the person whose birthday it is.
In Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Ireland, immediately after "Happy Birthday" has been sung, it is traditional for one of the guests to enthusiastically lead with "Hip hip..." and then for all of the other guests to join in and say "... hooray!" This is normally repeated three times. In Canada, especially at young children's birthdays, immediately after "Happy Birthday" has been sung, the singers segue into "How old are you now? How old are you now? How old are you now-ow, how old are you now?" and then count up: "Are you one? Are you two? Are you..." until they reach the right age, at which the celebrant says "yes", and everybody else, who presumably know the right number, all cheer.
The origins of "Happy Birthday to You" date back to at least the late 19th century, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, introduced the song "Good Morning to All" to Patty's kindergarten class in Kentucky. Years later, in 1893, they published the tune in their songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. Kembrew McLeod stated that the Hill sisters likely copied the tune and lyrical idea from other popular and similar nineteenth-century songs that predated theirs, including Horace Waters' "Happy Greetings to All", "Good Night to You All" also from 1858, "A Happy New Year to All" from 1875, and "A Happy Greeting to All", published 1885. However, American law professor Robert Brauneis disputes this, noting that these earlier songs had quite different melodies.
It is likely that teachers and students spontaneously adapted the published version of "Good Morning to All" to celebrate birthdays in the classroom, changing the lyrics to "Happy Birthday" in the process. The complete text of "Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print as the final four lines of Edith Goodyear Alger's poem "Roy's Birthday", published in her book A Primer of Work and Play, copyrighted by D. C. Heath in 1901, with no reference to the words being sung. The first book including "Happy Birthday" lyrics set to the tune of "Good Morning to All" that bears a date of publication is from 1911 in The Elementary Worker and His Work, but earlier references exist to a song called "Happy Birthday to You" including an article from 1901 in the Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal.Children's Praise and Worship, edited by Andrew Byers, Bessie L. Byrum and Anna E. Koglin, published the song in 1918. In 1924, Robert Coleman included "Good Morning to All" in a songbook with the birthday lyrics as a second verse. Coleman also published "Happy Birthday" in The American Hymnal in 1933.
In 1935, several specific piano arrangements and an unused second verse of "Happy Birthday to You" were copyrighted as a work for hire crediting Preston Ware Orem for the piano arrangements and Mrs. R. R. Forman for the lyrics by the Summy Company, the publisher of "Good Morning to All". This served as the legal basis for claiming that Summy Company legally registered the copyright for the song, as well as the later renewal of these copyrights. A later 2015 lawsuit would find this claim baseless. That specific new lyrics that also included the full text of "Happy Birthday to You", was a copyright on the derivative work. A 1957 acquisition of C.C. Birchard & Company saw Summy Company becoming the Summy-Birchard Company. A later corporate restructuring in the 1970s saw Summy-Birchard becoming a division of a new company: Birch Tree Group Limited.
Warner/Chappell Music acquired Birch Tree Group Limited in 1988 for US$25 million. The company continued to insist that one cannot sing the "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics for profit without paying royalties: in 2008, Warner collected about US$5,000 per day (US$2 million per year) in royalties for the song. Warner/Chappell claimed copyright for every use in film, television, radio, anywhere open to the public, and for any group where a substantial number of those in attendance are not family or friends of whoever is performing the song. Brauneis cited problems with the song's authorship and the notice and renewal of the copyright, and concluded: "It is almost certainly no longer under copyright."
In the European Union, copyright lasts for the life of the author(s) plus 70 years; since Patty Hill (the last surviving author) died in 1946, the copyright in these countries expired on January 1, 2017.
On June 13, 2013, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson filed a putative class action suit in federal court for the Southern District of New York against Warner/Chappell in the name of her production company, Good Morning to You Productions. As part of a documentary she was making about the song and its history, she had paid US$1,500 to secure the rights. Her complaint relied heavily on Brauneis's research, seeking not only the return of her money but all royalties collected by the company from other filmmakers since 2009. A week later a similar case was filed in the Central District of California, Rupa Marya v. Warner Chappell Music Inc, Case No. 2:13-cv-04460. Five weeks later, Nelson refiled the case there, and the cases were combined. As of April 2014, Warner's motion to dismiss had been denied without prejudice, and discovery began under an agreed plan with respect to Claim One, declaratory judgment as to whether "Happy Birthday to You" is in the public domain. The Motion Cut-Off as to Merits Issues on the Claim One deadline was November 7, 2014. After that, the court was expected to rule on the motion for summary judgment as to the merits issues on Claim One. A jury trial was requested.
On July 28, 2015, one day prior to a scheduled ruling, Nelson's attorneys Betsy Manifold and Mark Rifkin presented new evidence that they argued was conclusive proof that the song was in the public domain, "thus making it unnecessary for the Court to decide the scope or validity of the disputed copyrights, much less whether Patty Hill abandoned any copyright she may have had to the lyrics". Several weeks prior, they had been given access to documents held back from them by Warner/Chappell, which included a copy of the 15th edition of The Everyday Song Book, published in 1927. The book contained "Good Morning and Happy Birthday", but the copy was blurry, obscuring a line of text below the title. Manifold and Rifkin located a clearer copy of an older edition, published in 1922, that also contained the "Happy Birthday" lyrics. The previously obscured line was revealed to be the credit "Special permission through courtesy of The Clayton F Summy Co.". Manifold and Rifkin argued that because the music and lyrics were published without a valid copyright notice as was required at the time, "Happy Birthday" was in the public domain.
Warner/Chappell disputed the evidence, arguing that unless there was "necessary authorization from the copyright owner", the "Happy Birthday" lyrics and sheet music would still be subject to common law copyright as an unpublished work, and that it was unknown whether the "special permission" from the Summy Company covered "Good Morning to All", "Happy Birthday", or both, thus alleging that the publication in The Everyday Song Book was unauthorized. The company also argued that it was not acting in bad faith in withholding the evidence of the 1927 publication.
On September 22, 2015, federal judge George H. King ruled that the Warner/Chappell copyright claim over the lyrics was invalid. The 1935 copyright held by Warner/Chappell applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song, not the lyrics or melody. The court held that the question of whether the 1922 and 1927 publications were authorized, thus placing the song in the public domain, presented questions of fact that would need to be resolved at trial. However, Warner/Chappell had failed to prove that it actually had ever held a copyright to the lyrics, so the court was able to grant summary judgment to the plaintiffs, thus resolving the case.
Some initial news sources characterized the decision as ruling that the song was in the public domain, but the decision did not go so far, holding only that Warner/Chappell did not prove they owned the copyright. However, because there are no other claimants to the copyright, and the copyright to the melody long ago expired, the plaintiffs suggested that the song was de facto in the public domain. Also, the judge ruled that the song was not copyrighted by Summy Co., who had written in the song book, "Special permission through courtesy of the Clayton F. Summy Co." Since there was no evidence Summy Co. had copyright on the song, the song is still considered to be in the public domain.
Prior to the lawsuit, Warner/Chappell had been earning $2 million a year licensing the song for commercial use, with a notable example the $5,000 paid by the filmmakers of the 1994 documentary, Hoop Dreams, in order to safely distribute the film. On February 8, 2016, Warner/Chappell agreed to pay a settlement of $14 million to those who had licensed the song, and would allow a final judgement declaring the song to be in the public domain, with a final hearing scheduled in March 2016. On June 28, 2016, the final settlement was officially granted and the court declared that the song was in the public domain. The following week, Nelson's short-form documentary, Happy Birthday: my campaign to liberate the people's song, was published online by The Guardian.
One of the most famous performances of "Happy Birthday to You" was Marilyn Monroe's rendition to U.S. President John F. Kennedy in May 1962. Another notable use was by comedy pianist Victor Borge, who played the song in styles of various composers, or would begin playing Moonlight Sonata, smoothly transitioning into the song.
The documentary film The Corporation states that Warner/Chappell charged up to US$10,000 for the song to appear in a film. Because of the copyright issue, filmmakers rarely showed complete singalongs of "Happy Birthday" in films, either substituting the public-domain "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" or avoiding the song entirely. Before the song was copyrighted it was used freely, as in Bosko's Party, a Warner Bros. cartoon of 1932, where a chorus of animals sings it twice through. The copyright status of "Happy Birthday to You" is directly referenced in a 2009 episode of the TV series iCarly, "iMake Sam Girlier", in which the main character as well as others begin to sing the song to Sam but are prevented from doing so by Freddie, who says the song isn't public domain; "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow" is then sung instead.
In a 1998 episode of the television show Sports Night, "Intellectual Property", character Dan Rydell sings the song to his co-anchor during a telecast, forcing his network to pay royalties, and causing him to ask his colleagues to choose public-domain songs for him to sing for their birthdays. The copyright is also referenced frequently in a Disney A.N.T. Farm episode where characters repeatedly try to sing the song, only to be stopped by others reminding them of the price. The melody of the song is also featured in The Wrong Trousers but was replaced with "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" for DVD releases. The use of the song is a problem even if it is sung in a made-up language, as a Klingon-language version was nixed in pre-production from the 7th-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Parallels", replaced with "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in Klingon. In the Futurama episode "I Second That Emotion", they poke fun at the song and its copyright by making their own version with the lyrics "What day is today? / It's (birthday person)'s birthday / What a day for a birthday / Let's all have some cake."
In the 30 Rock episode "Goodbye, My Friend", TGS cast members begin to sing the song following an announcement about the royalty fee for singing "Happy Birthday to You" on a television show. The cast is interrupted after the first line by a character entering the scene. In the Community episode "Mixology Certification", a scene starts with the last two words of the song ("... to you"), implying it had been sung in its entirety, before Pierce confusedly asks, "How come we only sang the last two words?"
In the 1987 documentary Eyes on the Prize about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, there was a birthday party scene in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s discouragement began to lift. After its initial release, the film was unavailable for sale or broadcast for many years because of the cost of clearing many copyrights, of which "Happy Birthday to You" was one. Grants in 2005 for copyright clearances allowed PBS to rebroadcast the film as recently as February 2008.
In 2010, the Western Classical music conductor Zubin Mehta conducted the orchestra to play variations of Happy Birthday in the styles of various Western classical music composers including Wagner, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and in the Viennese, New Orleans and Hungarian composition styles.
On August 5, 2013, the first anniversary of its landing on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover celebrated its "birthday" when engineers at Goddard Space Flight Center used the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument to cause the rover to "sing" Happy Birthday on the Martian surface.
During the March 6, 2014 episode of the Comedy Central series The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert planned to sing the song in honor of the 90th anniversary of its 1924 publication, but was "forced" to sing a new "royalty-free" version—with lyrics set to "The Star-Spangled Banner", instead, due to the copyright issues.
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We paid $700 to say happy birthday. You got to pay for the song.Williams used the song during an episode of her show.
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- Free sheet music of Happy Birthday to You from Cantorion.org
- The original edition of Song Stories For The Kindergarten in PDF (public domain). It contains the song "Good morning to you".
- The Happy Birthday Song and The Little Loomhouse
- "Happy Birthday" at MusicBrainz (information & list of recordings)
- on YouTube in 2013
- The Happy Birthday Song provides access to the "Good Morning and Birthday Song" from the 1927 edition of The Everyday Song Book held by the University of Pittsburgh Library System.