Last week I celebrated another birthday…and in between wondering how the hell I got so old and plucking snow-white hairs in my car’s rearview mirror at traffic stops (WHY can’t they make a “permanent” hair color that will cover white?), I started thinking about the “Happy Birthday” song.
Which is, frankly, not something I do very often, but several months ago I heard a story on NPR radio about the song which left me figuratively scratching my head. Because, along with most people, I took it for granted that the ubiquitous ditty, as much a tradition as holiday fruitcake (and in some quarters about as popular) was in the public domain. Free for anyone to sing, anywhere, anytime.
Not so fast, most people.
Cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the most frequently sung songs in the English language, “Happy Birthday to You” has been translated into at least 18 languages and is even the subject of a documentary film. But had you ever given a thought to its origin?
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First appearing in print about 1912, with no credit or copyright notices, “Happy Birthday to You” is said to be the offspring of “Good-Morning to All,” introduced by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill to Patty’s kindergarten class in Louisville, Kentucky and published in their 1893 songbook, “Song Stories for the Kindergarten”:
Good morning to you, good morning to you,
Good morning dear children, good morning to all.
The story goes that the Hill sisters’ young students enjoyed the tune enough to begin spontaneously performing it at birthday parties, where they changed the “Good morning” to “Happy Birthday.” A tradition was born, though the song wasn’t copyrighted until 1935, by the Summy Company, proud publisher of “Good Morning to All,” and a new company, Birch Tree Group, was formed to enforce the copyright. In 1988, Birch Tree Ltd. was acquired by Warner/Chappell, a division of the Warner Music Group, for a cool $25 million.
Warner/Chappell not only claims to be the owner of “Happy Birthday to You,” but has collected an estimated $2 million per year in licensing fees for it, which is hardly chump change for a piece containing only seven notes and a little over five words (depending on the subject of the singing).
That was news to filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who wanted to produce a documentary about the history of the song. Understandably, it was to be performed in one scene.
Not so fast, said Warner/Chappell.
First Ms. Nelson had to pay $1,500 and enter into a licensing agreement. Which she did…before deciding to file a lawsuit against Warner/Chappell that seeks to have the tune declared in the public domain.
“It’s a song created by the public, it belongs to the public, and it needs to go back to the public,” declared Nelson’s attorney, Mark C. Rifkin, to the New York Times. Personally, I’m betting the Sisters Hill would agree with him, and they’d be further backed up by Professor Robert Brauneis of the George Washington University Law School, who wrote a 68-page article on the subject titled “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song” and who believes it unlikely the tune is still under copyright.
I couldn’t help wondering what Patty and Mildred Hill would make of Jennifer Nelson’s legal battle, or the fact that she wanted to make a film about their little song’s history…not to mention those multi-million dollar licensing fees. Mildred passed away in 1916, long before the song became famous; Patty, in 1946. Then again, the sisters were posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 12, 1996.
Perhaps that was glory enough.
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You say it’s your birthday? Happy Birthday to You!
But don’t ask me to sing it, okay? Not because I’m a little shy about my singing voice…
I think I’d just rather wait until that suit is settled.