"Happy Birthday to You", also known more simply as "Happy Birthday", is a traditional song that is sung to celebrate the anniversary of a person's birth. According to the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records, "Happy Birthday to You" is the most well recognized song in the English language, followed by "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and "Auld Lang Syne. The song's base lyrics have been translated into at least 18 languages.
The melody of "Happy Birthday to You" comes from the song "Good Morning to All", which was written and composed by American sisters Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. They were both kindergarten school teachers in Louisville, Kentucky, developing various teaching methods at what is now the Little Loomhouse. The sisters created "Good Morning to All" as a song that would be easy to sing by young children. The combination of melody and lyrics in "Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print in 1912, and probably existed even earlier. None of these early appearances included credits or copyright notices. The Summy Company registered for copyright in 1935, crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman. In 1990, Warner Chappell purchased the company owning the copyright for US$15 million, with the value of "Happy Birthday" estimated at US$5 million. Based on the 1935 copyright registration, Warner claims that U.S. copyright won't expire until 2030, and that unauthorized public performances of the song are technically illegal unless royalties are paid to it.
In European Union (EU) countries the copyright in the song will expire December 31, 2016.
The actual U.S. copyright status of "Happy Birthday to You" began to draw more attention with the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Act in Eldred v. Ashcroft in 2003, Judge Breyer specifically mentioned "Happy Birthday to You" in his dissenting opinion. Professor Robert Brauneis went so far as to conclude "It is doubtful that 'Happy Birthday to You', the famous offspring of 'Good Morning to All', is really still under copyright", in his heavily researched 2008 paper.
One of the first bands to have a hit with a variation of the traditional song were the R&B group The Tune Weavers, who hit #5 on the Pop charts and #4 on the R&B charts, with their song "Happy, Happy Birthday Baby".
The origins of "Happy Birthday To You" date back to the mid-nineteenth century, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, began singing the song "Good Morning To All" to their 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 songs from that time period. There were a number of popular and substantially similar nineteenth-century songs that predated the Hill sisters' composition, 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 copyright for both the words and the music of "Good Morning to All" has since expired and both are now a part of the public domain.
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". 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. Children's Praise and Worship, edited by Andrew Byers, Bessie L. Byrum and Anna E. Koglin, published the song in 1928.
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 1988, the rights to "Happy Birthday to You" and its assets were sold to The Time-Warner Corporation. The company still strongly believes that one cannot sing the "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics for profit without paying extremely high royalties (by some accounts, upwards of $10,000 for a single use in a film or television program). 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 friend to whoever is performing the song.
Except for the splitting of the first note in the melody "Good Morning to All" to accommodate the two syllables in the word happy, melodically "Happy Birthday to You" and "Good Morning to All" are identical. Precedent (regarding works derived from public domain material, and cases comparing two similar musical works) seems to suggest that the melody used in "Happy Birthday to You" would not merit additional copyright status for one split note. Whether or not changing the words "good morning" to "happy birthday" should be covered by copyright is a different matter. The words "good morning" were replaced with "happy birthday" by others than the authors of "Good Morning to All". Regardless of the fact that "Happy Birthday to You" infringed upon Good Morning to All, there is one theory that because the "Happy Birthday to You" variation was not authored by the Hills, and it was published without notice of copyright under the 1909 U. S. copyright act, that the 1935 registration is invalid.
Many question the validity of the current copyright, as the melody of the song was most likely borrowed from other popular songs of the time, and the lyrics were improvised by a group of five and six-year-old children who never received any compensation. The song is currently set to pass in to the public domain in 2030.
In the 1987 documentary Eyes on the Prize about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a birthday party scene in which Dr. King's discouragement began to lift. After its initial release, the film was unavailable for sale or broadcast for many years because of the cost of clearing many copyrights, of which "Happy Birthday to You" was one. Grants in 2005 for copyright clearances have allowed PBS to rebroadcast the film as recently as February 2008.
One of the popular audience lines in The Rocky Horror Picture Show alludes to this. After Dr. Frank N. Furter has captured Brad, Janet and Dr. Scott, he hosts a dinner for them. At the beginning of an apparent birthday celebration, the audience calls out "Start to sing 'Happy Birthday' but don't finish it", and indeed, Dr. Furter cuts it short midway through the song.
The Zucker brothers learned about the copyright issue unwittingly when they decided to include a gag in The Kentucky Fried Movie that had made them laugh growing up: A man sings "Happy Birthday" to remind himself of his own name. Recording the DVD commentary in the late 1990s, Jerry Zucker watched the singing of the song and then announced: "That's ten thousand dollars right there!"
The David Gilmour DVD Remember That Night has a scene in the documentary where the band and crew celebrate Richard Wright's birthday, and the song is muted, and a message informing viewers to sing it themselves is shown.
Oliver Stone's 1987 Wall Street was one of the rare films that played enough of the song to justify a royalty payment. Bud's computer plays the melody early in the film to remind him it's Gordon Gekko's birthday, and the song is included in the music credits at the end of the film.
In 1955, Igor Stravinsky arranged a variation of the song, called Greeting Prelude, to commemorate the 80th birthday of Pierre Monteux. The Russian-born composer wrote that he had been introduced to the tune only five years earlier, when members of an orchestra with whom he was rehearsing, to his bafflement at the time, played the tune in honor of a recent birth among the orchestra members.
Many restaurants have original, modern, corporate-developed songs that are used instead of the old-fashioned "Happy Birthday to You" when serving patrons the traditional cake on their birthdays. Originally, these songs were specifically developed to prevent copyright infringement and having to pay royalties.
In the Homestar Runner cartoon " Strong Bad Sings", there is a scene where The Cheat plays "Happy Birthday to You" on the piano while Strong Mad struggles to remember the words to the song. When the toon was released on DVD, "Happy Birthday to You" was replaced with the public domain song "Hot Cross Buns". On the DVD commentary, Mike Chapman remarked: "Those Nazis!"
In the first season of the show Sports Night, Dan Rydell is told that his company will have to pay $2,500 in legal costs because he sang "Happy Birthday" to his co-anchor Casey on air. The two are baffled that it took two people to write such a simple song.
On the show Upright Citizens Brigade, the cast created their own birthday song which became a running joke throughout the three seasons. During the commentary on the DVD release the cast cites the copyright of "Happy Birthday to You" as their inspiration.
The show Aqua Teen Hunger Force originally was to have the song played in an episode for Meatwad's birthday. When the writers were made aware of the copyright issues they decided to mock it by creating their own version that Master Shake wanted people to start singing so he would get all the royalties. It was co-written by Zakk Wylde.
Authorized sheet music for the song to be sung for a new baby was included in a lesson on addition in a widely adopted 2nd grade standards-based mathematics textbook developed by TERC in the late 1990s.
Stewart Copeland, best known as drummer for The Police, says in the commentary track to the DVD version of his documentary film Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out that he had to overlay a music soundtrack and use the image only in one shot where "Happy Birthday" was being sung in the original footage, because the rights to the song are "incredibly expensive".
In the 30 Rock episode "Black Tie", the German variation of "Happy Birthday to You", known as "Zum Geburtstag viel Glück", is used to serenade an Austrian prince played by Paul Reubens. Jenna Maroney, Jane Krakowski's character, almost manages to sing the first lyric in English.
On the July 23, 1985 episode of Super Password, Tom Poston, Who was one of the celebrity guests, told Bert Convy to look at the puzzle board which asked whose birthday it was that day. the answer was Bert Convy. Everybody in the studio sang and a cake came out the entrance door.
Futurama episode "I Second That Emotion" parodied the copyright issue with a distinctly similar-tuned song with new lyrics and ending with "Now let's all have some cake". Fry, the who is from the 20th century, sings on past the rest of the group, "and you smell like one too." This alludes to a well-known parody of "Happy Birthday" which ends with that line. In the DVD commentary for the episode, it is mentioned that the primary reason for the new song was the high cost of licensing "Happy Birthday to You".
On the January 9, 2008 Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, during the "It's Email Time Again" section of the show where host Craig Ferguson answers viewers' emails, one viewer told Craig it was her birthday and asked if he would sing her "Happy Birthday". Ferguson went on to explain that every time the song was sung on TV you had to pay a royalty to the copyright holder and it would cost money to wish her happy birthday, then sang the complete song with the line "take that CBS" in place where one's name would go.
On the May 28th, 2008, broadcast of The View, Whoopi Goldberg led the audience in singing the song to celebrate the birthday of Elisabeth Hasselbeck, to the obvious discomfort of Joy Behar. After finishing, Behar remarked, "They're going crazy behind the scenes. You have to pay a lot of money to sing that!" Goldberg responded, "Take it out of my check. It was worth it." Whoopi was then the one wary of singing the song on the July 17 broadcast; Barbara Walters led the singing in celebration of show executive producer Bill Geddie's birthday.
On June 27, 2008, hundreds of people in London's Hyde Park sang the song to Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his 90th birthday.