“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”