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Happy Birthday

posted May 12, 2015, 3:19 PM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated May 12, 2015, 3:19 PM ]
According to the 1998 Guinness World Records, Happy Birthday is the most recognized song in the English language, followed by For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. Its melody comes from the song Good Morning to All, composed in Kentucky by two school-teaching sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill, who publish it in their 1893 songbook Song Stories for Kindergarten. People quickly start adapting the lyric to Happy Birthday to you, (though no one is sure who’s the first to do that,) and it’s first published that way in 1912.

By 1935 it’s become so popular that a third sister, Jessica Hill, gets the Summy Company to copyright it on their behalf, despite there being no proof that they wrote the new lyrics. That copyright would have expired by now, but the Copyright Act of 1976 extended the term of protection to 75 years, and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another 20 years! So under current law it’s protected until at least 2030!

Warner/Chappell Music acquired this copyright in 1988 for $25 million. Incorporated into untold millions of music boxes, watches, musical greeting cards, and other products; the song currently nets an estimated $2 million a year in licensing fees. (They charge about $10,000 for it to be used in recording or film, which is why you rarely hear it in a movie or television show.)

In 2013, a class action lawsuit was filed seeking to invalidate anyone’s claim to copyright ownership, but we’re still waiting for the court’s decision on that. In the meantime, it’s OK for you to sing it at home, but if you sing it in public, either you or the restaurant, park, school or church you’re in is supposed to be paying a royalty…