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The History and the Meaning of the ‘Happy Birthday’ Song

Our series "All About Birthdays" brings you fun facts on everything birthday, from why we celebrate turning one year older to discovering birthday traditions around the world.

“Happy Birthday to You” is one of the most well-known songs in the world, thanks to its simple lyrics and catchy six-note melody. It's a song that almost everyone knows because it's sung aloud every year before the guest of honor blows out the birthday cake candles.

It has been translated into at least 18 languages and is played at millions of birthday parties each year for people of all ages. Marilyn Monroe sang it to President John F. Kennedy, and it even made it into space when the crew of the Apollo IX sang it during their mission in 1969.

However, if you look a little deeper into the history of this classic piece of American music, you'll discover that it was protected by global copyright for decades. Anyone who wanted to use the song commercially — for example, in a film, a public performance, or even a musical greeting card — had to pay a fee to music publisher Warner Chappell Music. Every year, the royalties brought in about $2 million for the company.

 

How ‘Happy Birthday to You’ became part of the public domain

Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker, was among those who paid the fee — $1,500 to secure the rights for her documentary about the song and its history — but something about the copyright bothered her. Jennifer filed a class-action suit in 2013, which resulted in “Happy Birthday to You” becoming public domain in 2015.

“The whole thing was one big adventure, and one thing led to the next, which led to a three-year lawsuit and, ultimately, the liberation of the ‘Happy Birthday' song,” Jennifer says.

So, who wrote "Happy Birthday to You," and how did it become the subject of a copyright dispute? Jennifer's award-winning short film "Saving Happy Birthday," commissioned by The Guardian, contains the answers.

From ‘Good Morning to All’ to ‘Happy Birthday to You’

Mildred J. Hill was teaching kindergarten at a school in her hometown of  Kentucky in 1883, where her sister, Patty Smith Hill, was the principal. The sisters worked together to create an easy-to-sing and easy-to-remember song for teachers to use when welcoming young students to class each day. Mildred composed the melody and Patty wrote the lyrics for the song "Good Morning to All."

 

Good morning to you,

Good morning to you,

Good morning, dear children,

Good morning to all!

 

Jennifer discovered that the sisters had changed their lyrics for a birthday party several years later. She visited the Little Loom House in Kentucky, the Hill family's summer cabin where the song "Happy Birthday to You" was born, as part of her filming.

 

 

“The Hills would have parties and strawberry festivals at the cabins, and they would enjoy the coolness of the woods,” Jennifer explains. “One summer, it was the birthday of one of the Hill sisters' friends, Lysette Hest's, and Patty and Mildred decided to celebrate her birthday by singing a song.”

“The Hills replaced the lyrics for a song they wrote in 1883 called ‘Good Morning to All' with ‘Happy Birthday to You,' using the same melody,” Jennifer explains. “It was a hit!”

Although the Hill sisters had no idea how popular their song would become, Jennifer says they had a good idea of how much people liked it.

“The Hills were part of the kindergarten movement — the first time that young children went to school — and presented their book, Song Stories for the Kindergarten, which featured the ‘Happy Birthday' song, at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.” The Hills' songbook's copyright expired in 1921.

The song's fame, on the other hand, was just getting started. Jennifer claims that by the 1930s, "Happy Birthday to You" had appeared in the first Western Union singing telegram as well as Irving Berlin's Broadway musical, As Thousands Cheer.

Jessica Hill, the third Hill sister, entered the picture at this point. Jessica Hill secured a new copyright for the birthday song in 1935, working with the Clayton F. Summy Company, publisher of her older sisters' songbook.

According to the laws in effect at the time, this copyright would have expired by 1991, allowing the song to enter the public domain. Several copyright extension acts, however, extended the rights until at least 2030.

 

Time to celebrate

By the time Jennifer entered the picture, Warner Chappell Music, which had purchased the publishing company that owned the rights to the song for $25 million in 1988, was making $2 million in royalties from "Happy Birthday to You" every year.

However, federal judge George H. King ruled in 2015 that the 1935 copyright obtained by the Summy Company granted rights only to certain arrangements of the music for the piano, not to the song itself.

As a result, King ruled that Warner Chappell Music did not own the song's rights and declared it to be in the public domain. In the settlement, the publishing company agreed to pay $14 million, effectively ending its copyright claim and ability to collect royalties. As a result, Jennifer received her $1,500 refund.

“Happy Birthday to You” has come a long way since its inception as a song intended to welcome children to school to becoming the most recognized song in the English language. You might be inspired to belt it out with even more gusto at the next birthday party you attend now that you know a little more about its history.

 

 

 

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