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Who Wrote "Happy Birthday to You" (and Who's Collecting the Millions in Royalties)?

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“Happy Birthday to You” has been used in hundreds of movies, countless advertisements, an estimated 1,500,000+ singing telegrams, and been the basis for pieces by classical composers like Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. It’s arguably the most recognized song in the English-speaking world, and it's making some lucky people a whole lot of money. But who?

The birthday staple originated as another song, "Good Morning to All,” written and composed by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893.

Patty was an early childhood educator who worked as a kindergarten teacher and principal in Kentucky. Her older sister, Mildred, was an accomplished pianist, organist, and composer. She also studied ethnomusicology before there was even a name for it, and is thought to have written (under a pseudonym) a pioneering journal article about African-American music that shockingly, but presciently, claimed that the melodies and themes of “Negro Music” would eventually give rise to distinctively American forms of music.

Patty often complained that the songs available for her students to sing in class were either too musically difficult for children or too mismatched in their musical style, lyrical content, and emotional tone. So, in 1889, she and Mildred started to collaborate on a number of songs for children, specifically ones tailored to the limited musical abilities of Patty’s young students.

One of their first efforts, "Good Morning to All” (GMTA), was, like the song it would morph into, deceptively simple. Crafting a melody that’s easy enough to be sung and remembered by kindergarteners is no small feat. At the same time, it’s still musically interesting within those constraints. The melody plays, repeats a step higher, repeats another step higher and then comes back down, in a frequently used theme that Leonard Bernstein compared to a three-stage rocket. It's got symmetry, it's got repetition, and it's got just enough variation to keep you on your toes. The same qualities that made, as Mildred might have predicted, the 12-bar blues form such a bedrock idea in American music.

Patty’s students instantly took to the song and sang it every morning. In 1893, the Hill sisters published it, and the rest of their songs, in the book Song Stories for the Kindergarten.

It’s not clear how the lyrics changed from “good morning” to “happy birthday." Supposedly, the children in Patty’s school so enjoyed the song that they began singing it spontaneously and changing the lyrics to suit their needs, and a birthday version naturally followed. While the rest of the Hills’ songs slid into obscurity, GMTA gained widespread popularity with the alternate birthday lyrics. The new version was published in songbooks, played on the radio, featured in the new “talkie” movies, and even used in Western Union’s first singing telegram (sent from a fan to Rudy Vallee).

That Sounds Familiar

In almost every one of these instances, the use of the music was uncredited and uncompensated. This went on for decades, with the Hill sisters none the wiser, until another of their sisters, Jessica, recognized the GMTA melody in a 1934 production of Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer. Patty and Jessica (Mildred had since passed away) filed a lawsuit alleging infringement of GMTA, but the case was eventually dismissed.

That same year, Jessica and Patty granted permission to the Clayton F. Summy Co., a Chicago-based music publisher, to use the GMTA melody. Summy printed sheet music and songbooks containing four instrumental versions of the melody and two versions of the GMTA melody combined with the “happy birthday” lyrics, titled “Happy Birthday to You" (HBTY). The company also filed for copyright on these six arrangements, all ascribing the songs as works for hire by composers employed by the company. In the following decades, the credits to HBTY became fairly confused, with the authors listed variously as Hill and Wilson, Hill and Dahnert, “traditional” and Hill and Hill.

In 1988, the Summy Company - which had since merged and become Summy-Birchard, and then became a division of Birchtree, Ltd. - was bought, along with its 50,000 songs, by Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. for a reported $25 million. Since then, the ownership of HBTY has changed pretty regularly because of corporate dealmaking, mergers, and sales. Not long after it acquired HBTY, Warner Communications merged with Time, Inc. to create Time Warner, the world’s largest media and entertainment conglomerate. A little over a decade later, Time Warner was itself purchased by America Online, creating AOL Time Warner. After a significant loss was declared on the corporation’s income statement amid the dot-com bubble burst, AOL was removed from the corporation’s title and eventually spun off as an independent company, with Time Warner keeping the music publishing and recording operations. These were eventually sold to a group of investors who reformed the Warner Music Group as a company separate from Time Warner, which was sold just last year to Access Industries Inc.

Birthday Money

Despite it being a relatively small drop in a stream of revenue coming in from thousands of properties, all of HBTY’s various owners have kept a tight grip on the song, insisting that any use of the melody and/or lyrics in public or for profit must result in a royalty check for them. From the song’s use in film, television, radio, or in a public performance (ever wonder why most restaurants have their own birthday songs instead of the real deal?), its owners have pulled in a decent amount of cash. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the song generated $15,000 to $20,000 per year. Through the 1960s, it made closer to $50,000 annually, and over $75,000 during the 1970s. By the 1990s, the song was generating well over $1 million per year. In the last few years, WMG has pulled in over $2 million a year in royalties. It will continue to do so until the year 2030.

The original copyright was supposed to have expired long ago, but copyright extension legislation passed in the 1970s and the 1990s extended the copyright by almost a century, giving the song a whopping 137 years of protection after the melody was first written.

Who Gets the Money?

Neither Patty nor Mildred ever married or had children, so they established the Hill Foundation to receive income from royalties for the song. Under Time Warner ownership, two thirds of the revenue went to the company and the remaining third went to the foundation, which then passed it to the Hill sisters’ nephew, Archibald Hill. Archibald was a linguistics professor who reportedly used some of the money to subsidize the Linguistic Society of America in its leaner years. When he died in 1992, control of the foundation was given to the nonprofit Association for Childhood Education International, which spent years fighting in court to get its share of the royalties.

In the last few years, some legal minds - most famously Robert Brauneis, a Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Intellectual Property Law Program at George Washington University - have questioned the validity of the HBTY copyright and pointed out several issues with it in law journals, among them:

The Hill sisters’ melody, which is a work subject to its own copyright, bears a strong resemblance to several works that came before it, including some traditional folk songs.
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The words “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear (celebrant name), happy birthday to you” is another work subject to its own copyright, and its author is unknown. In her testimony in the suit against the Broadway show, Patty never claimed that she or her sister wrote the “happy birthday” lyrics or combined them with the tune of GMTA.
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The combination of the music and lyrics as HBTY is a derivative work and, again, subject to its own copyright. Brauneis argues that anyone claiming rights to the song can only make that claim if they can trace the work back to the author. No one can trace the song back any further than the Hills, who admittedly didn’t write the “Happy Birthday” lyrics, and who might have even copped the melody from another song.
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The original copyright on the song might never been renewed. Under the laws of the time, the song should have entered the public domain had it not been renewed at the end of the original term of copyright. Brauneis has only been able to find renewals filed for particular arrangements of the song, and doubts that they suffice to preserve copyright on the song itself.

There’s a strong case that HBTY shouldn’t be protected by copyright any longer, and T.G.I. Friday’s waitresses should be able sing it to patrons if they want. Who would be silly/brave enough to test this in court, though? The opposition would almost certainly have more lawyers and deeper pockets, but Brauneis points out that these weaknesses in the registration and renewal of HBTY have probably kept the song’s owners from being too lawsuit-happy with infringers.

“Any suit that [the owner] filed would be susceptible to a very early motion to dismiss based on the lack of any registration for the song,” Brauneis writes. “That motion could be decided without much discovery; if it were decided adversely to Summy-Birchard, the song would be in the public domain due to the defective renewal, and the entire stream of income from the song would dry up – a very big risk to take just to enforce against one infringer.”

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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