Entering Public Domain – The History of Happy Birthday

The History of Happy Birthday
Did you know that in 1998, Guinness World Records named “Happy Birthday to You” as the most recognized song in the English language?

It’s not really that much of a surprise. For many, no birthday seems complete without singing the song. It doesn’t matter if you are turning 1 or 100. But have you ever thought about how “Happy Birthday to You” came to be so widespread in the first place?

We’ll sing you a tune about the history of Happy Birthday, and explain when it officially became recognized in the public domain (hint: it wasn’t that long ago).

The History of Happy Birthday to You

“Happy Birthday to You” was written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, though the song’s creation was gradual.

Patty Hill was a kindergarten principal in Louisville, Kentucky, and was interested in developing new teaching methods. Her sister Mildred was a pianist and composer. Together, they composed a song titled “Good Morning to All,” which was meant to be a daily classroom greeting for young kids. The song was featured in the book, Song Stories for the Kindergarten, which was published in 1893. It would become popular in Kentucky kindergartens and primary schools throughout the late 19th century.

No one knows exactly when, but overtime the word “birthday” began to creep into versions of the song. The song as we know it today was first published in a book edited by Robert H. Coleman in 1924.

The song would become increasingly popular, and in 1934, Jessica Hill, the sister of Mildred and Patty, would file a lawsuit. She claimed that using the “Good Morning to You” melody in “Happy Birthday to You” was unauthorized. Taking matters into her own hands, she copyrighted and published “Happy Birthday to You” in 1935.

Happy Birthday and Public Domain

The Clayton F. Summy Company, which Jessica Hill used to publish “Happy Birthday to You,” was eventually taken over by Warner/Chappell Music in 1988. Warner/Chappell would argue that unauthorized performances of the song were illegal. While the copyright holders didn’t barge into family homes and demand compensation for its use during birthday parties, they did require a licensing fee to be paid for official uses.

Eventually, however, Warner/Chappell would have to defend their copyright claim in court. They were sued for claiming a false copyright on the song in 2013. A federal judge ultimately ruled in 2015 that Warner/Chappell’s copyright on the song was not valid. According to the judge, the original copyright registration only covered a specific piano version of the song, not the whole thing.

Warner/Chappell would settle the case in 2016, and the court ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” was in public domain. Previously, Warner/Chappell was receiving six-figure licensing fees from major motion pictures that wanted to use the song in movie scenes. Now, as part of the public domain, anyone is free to belt it out.

Since its introduction, “Happy Birthday to You” has been translated into at least 18 different languages. After such a complex history, that’s certainly something to sing about!

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