So today I’m venturing into urban myth territory again and exploring what’s up with singing “ Happy Birthday “? The urban myth I’ve heard is that some unscrupulous cad had copyrighted the song that the world has known and loved since the early 1900’s and is now charging for every public performance and that’s why no one sings it on TV or in the movies.
Let’s see what Wiki has to say.
“ The origins of “Happy Birthday to You” date back to the mid-19th century, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, introduced the song “Good Morning to All” to Patty’s kindergarten class in Kentucky.
In 1893, they published the tune in their songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. However, many believe that the Hill sisters most likely copied the tune and lyrical idea from other popular and substantially similar nineteenth-century songs that predated theirs, including Horace Waters’ “Happy Greetings to All”, “Good Night to You All” also from 1858, “A Happy New Year to All” from 1875, and “A Happy Greeting to All”, published 1885.
The Hill Sisters’ students enjoyed their teachers’ version of “Good Morning to All” so much that they began spontaneously singing it at birthday parties, changing the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”. Children’s Praise and Worship, edited by Andrew Byers, Bessie L. Byrum and Anna E. Koglin, published the song in 1918. In 1924, Robert Coleman included “Good Morning to All” in a songbook with the birthday lyrics as a second verse. Coleman also published “Happy Birthday” in The American Hymnal in 1933.
In 1935, “Happy Birthday to You” was copyrighted as a work for hire by Preston Ware Orem for the Summy Company, the publisher of “Good Morning to All”. A new company, Birch Tree Group Limited, was formed to protect and enforce the song’s copyright. In 1989, the rights to “Happy Birthday to You” and its assets were sold to Time Warner. In March 2004, Warner Music Group was sold to a group of investors led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. The company continues to insist that one cannot sing the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics for profit without paying royalties: in 2008, Warner collected about $5000 per day ($2 million per year) in royalties for the song. This includes use in film, television, radio, anywhere open to the public, or even among a group where a substantial number of those in attendance are not family or friends of whoever is performing the song. For this reason, most restaurants or other public party venues will not allow their employees to perform the song in public, instead opting for other original songs or cheers in honor of the birthday celebrant. “
Sounds like the good folks at Warner-Chappell/Summy-Birchard could give Scrooge a run for his money. So is the song subject to copyright? Can these unscrupulous cads charge royalties and take you to court? Here is an excerpt from an excellent article on that very question.
“ That copyright is now owned by Warner-Chappell/Summy-Birchard. However, just because a copyright is registered doesn’t mean it’s valid. A copyright registration is only prima facia evidence. Just because someone threatens to sue doesn’t mean they would win. One lower court’s 1934 ruling couldn’t be binding on the whole country, much less the world.
Under the U. S. law of 1909, the effective date of copyright is the date of first publication. The U. S. Copyright Office states: “The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. [The Hills did not create the Happy Birthday to You version.] Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright.” There is proof that the song was published as Happy Birthday to You at least by 1915, which is prior to the public domain mark at 1923. Good Morning to All was not public domain in 1915, but it is now. Also, according to the 1909 Copyright Act, publication without notice forfeited the copyright for the publications in the 1920’s. A copyright registration dated 20 years after publication is not valid under the 1909 Copyright Act. That would seem to indicate that the whole song is now in the public domain. “
Interesting! Anyone feeling lucky?