“Happy Birthday” Is In The Public Domain…Finally

“Happy Birthday” Is In The Public Domain…Finally

A major copyright decision has finally been made regarding the song “Happy Birthday To You.”

But first, let’s explore the background. In the late 1800s, sisters Margaret Hill and Patty Hill wrote a song for children titled “Good Morning To All.” Patty was a kindergarten teacher, and Margaret was a pianist. They assigned publication rights to Clayton Summey in 1893 and the song was published as follows:

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n 1911, the “Happy Birthday” lyric was added. This required a slight alteration in the melody to accommodate the two syllables of “happy” vs. the one syllable of “good.”

The song appeared in print with the “Happy Birthday” lyric several times between 1911 and 1924. When Broadman Press released Modern Hymns in 1926, for example, they included a “Good Morning” verse, a “Happy Birthday” verse, and two additional verses. No songwriters are credited (see image below).

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In 1931, “Happy Birthday” was used in the Broadway musical The Band Wagon. Another Broadway musical used it again in 1933. At that point, Patty Hill and the heirs of Margaret Hill (who had passed away), gave Summey Co. their blessing to file a new copyright on the “Happy Birthday” verse with the original tune. The new copyright was registered in 1935.

Keep in mind that the Hill sisters never claimed they wrote the “Happy Birthday” verse. This fact will become important 80 years later (AKA today).

Warner/Chappell Music acquired the Clayton Summey Co. catalog in 1988 and began collecting royalties on “Happy Birthday.” In 1935, the duration of copyright was 28 years with an option to renew for another 28 years. Assuming the 1935 registration was valid, the song should have entered the public domain in 1991. After several copyright law modifications in following years, however, the term now sits at 95 years, effectively allowing royalties to be collected on “Happy Birthday” through 2030.

The producers of the 1994 movie Hoop Dreams famously paid $5000 after they used the song in their film. This was the shot across the bow that let the world know Warner/Chappell intended to enforce the “Happy Birthday” copyright. Since 1994, through use in movies, recordings, print and other public performances, it has been estimated that “Happy Birthday” generates somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million dollars per year in royalties for Warner/Chappell.

The fact that “Happy Birthday” has been considered to be under copyright for all these years has sparked some creativity. If you’re ever in a restaurant and you hear the waiters come out and sing a different birthday song to an embarrassed patron while everyone else at their table is laughing, understand that those alternate birthday songs are composed to avoid paying Warner/Chappell performance royalties.

Fast forward to 2013. A film company paid Warner/Chappell $1500 to license “Happy Birthday” for a documentary they were making about the song. Because they were intimately familiar with the background surrounding the song, the film company decided to challenge the claim that “Happy Birthday” was still under copyright.

It took two years to get a decision, but yesterday, a federal judge ultimately ruled in their favor. Here’s a clincher quote from the ruling:

Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics, defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics… – U.S. District Judge George H. King

At this point, Warner/Chappell might relent, or they might challenge the judge’s ruling in a higher court. For the moment, though, “Happy Birthday” is finally in the public domain.

David Bruce Murray

<p>David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray’s Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both SGHistory.com and MusicScribe.com. David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.</p>

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2 Comments

  1. David Bruce Murray
    Reply September 23, 11:51 #1 David Bruce Murray Author

    I should add that TECHNICALLY speaking, someone might now try to claim their ancestor wrote the lyric in 1901, and that it was published all these times without their permission.

    As with most anonymous lyrics that old, the odds of that happening are pretty much slim and none. Even if it did happen, I’m fairly sure a court would say they should have put up a fight for the lyric before now.




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  2. yankeegospelgirl
    Reply September 23, 21:39 #2 yankeegospelgirl

    This is great!




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