Birthday celebrations would be incomplete without cake and the song, 'Happy Birthday to You'. I believe that children across the world recognize the value of this song beyond Beethoven's sonnets and the Beatles' music. I am curious, though, if you are aware that this song was originally copyrighted for almost a century and then eventually became free from legal implications? Everyone who uses it in a film or TV program or sings in public places is legally obliged to pay a fee. In recent years, this popular, classic song has been the subject of a notable copyright lawsuit.
The history of the song ‘Happy Birthday’ is as complicated as the journey we now contemplate in our new normal of Covid 19. It’s a simple song we can all recite but is fraught with complications, copyright, and legalities.
The story behind ‘Happy Birthday to You’ song
The Guinness Book of World Records ranks the song as the most recognizable songs in English that were translated into more than two dozen languages. Here goes the history:
The lyrics and the tune of the song were written and composed in the early 1900s by two sisters named Mildred J Hill and Patty Smith Hill.
Mildred, who was an educator back when she composed the song for which Patty wrote the lyrics. Mildred then became a composer, pianist and an organist.
Patty developed the Patty Hill blocks, the building blocks which were used as educational tools. She also was one of the founders of the National Association for Nursery Education. It was later renamed as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). She also worked at Columbia University Teachers College.
Initially, the tune was composed for a daily classroom greeting, ‘Good Morning to All’ for children in the kindergarten. This later became a happy birthday song which was first published in a book edited by Robert H Coleman in the year 1924.
There were many allegations made on the song. According to Kembrew McLeod, the idea of the melody and lyrics might have been plagiarised by the sisters from 19th-century musical pieces. There are people like Robert Brauneis, an American law professor, who disagree with these allegations.
There were many famous renditions of the song made back then. But the notable ones had a huge significant impact thus leading to various lawsuits. The notable ones are President Kennedy’s 1962 birthday concert where Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday to You. Another notable moment is when the song appeared on the broadcast in 1969. It was sung by the crew orbiting Apollo 9 to NASA director Christopher Kraft.
Since then, the song has been translated into various languages and has been one of the most loved songs around the world. The song has a unique and profound place in this world.
Lawsuits of ‘Happy Birthday to You’
With the growing popularity of the song, the Hill sisters started to file suits against any unlicensed usage. They ensured that not even any renowned composers or playwrights could use the song allegedly. Yet, they never copyrighted the song. Even though lawsuits were being filed against alleged usage, it did not stop the astounding popularity of the song.
When the song started becoming famous in 1934, a suit was filed by Jessica, Mildred and Patty’s sister claiming the unauthorised use of the tune, ‘Good Morning to All’ in the ‘Happy Birthday to You’ song. Jessica applied for the Copyright protection of the song in 1935. Back then she was working with a publishing firm named Clayton F. Summy Company.
The Clayton F Summy Company was bought by Birch Tree Ltd (formerly John F Sengstack) which was in turn bought by Warner Chappell. Warner Chappell, belonging to the Warner Music Group, is the global music publishing company which bought the rights for the ‘Happy Birthday to You‘ song for $22 million in 1988 and has since made an estimate of $2m a year licensing the song for movies and TV. So, anyone who wanted to sing the song in public or use it in commercials must pay Warner Bros to get away without legal repercussions.
However, the variations to the birthday lyrics and its authorship remain uncertain.
According to Warner Bros, the copyright was held with the company until 2030 – which may be called the ‘highest’ earning song in history.
End of the Copyright
Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker, had to pay $1,500 in royalties for producing a documentary on the song ‘Good Morning to All.’. She filed a case against the record label giant in June 2013. The case was closely followed by copyright specialists and industry fraternities across the world, given its royalty values and popularity. Many individuals and copyright attorneys also felt that the song should be a part of the public domain.
In 2015, the court ruled that Warner Bros’ copyright claim was invalid. This was done after the lawyers found a lead in a 1922 songbook that included ‘Happy Birthday Song’ with a line stating, ‘Special permission through courtesy of the Clayton F Summy Company’. After lengthy legal negotiations, Warner Bros finally agreed to pay $14 million in a settlement. Thus it ended the claim and the song became public domain and free to use in February 2016.
It is now a matter of no threat to copyright infringement now that the song is available in the public domain. Everyone has the right to use it for both commercial and public purposes.
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