Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.

~ Mark Twain ~

Happy Birthday Song Bun Fight

June 26th, 2013 ~ Est. reading time: 2 mins, 41 secs

Singing the "Happy Birthday to You" song isn't free.

Singing the “Happy Birthday to You” song isn’t free.

There’s a happy birthday song bun fight going on out there and it’s all to do with who gets the cake. Yes, that innocent little happy birthday music song is tearing some people apart and they are already having a ding dong boxing match over it in Court.

What is this debacle all about you ask? Simple; who owns Happy Birthday to You? That sweet little ditty is claimed by some to be everyone’s. Whilst one company insist the Happy Birthday music song is and was theirs all along.

In case you haven’t read about this happy birthday song cash grab, it’s like this:

  • 120 years ago, two teachers (sisters Patty and Mildred Hill) from Louisville, Kentucky, published a song “Good Morning to All” as a welcome song for children arriving to school.
  • Over the following 30 years, the song evolved from a greeting for school students into something more personal as, “Good Morning to You” (with the designated person name slipped into the third line). 
  • After that nobody knows for sure who changed  “Good Morning to You” into “Happy Birthday to You” but we should be glad they did, as it still keeps packing families together to sing in celebration.
  • By 1924, a songbook edited by a Mr. Robert H. Coleman listed the song, ‘Happy Birthday to You’ for the first time in print, and from there the song was destined for fame.
  • When the mid-1930s arrived, the song had become popular, it was sung in several Broadway movies and even became the theme for the world’s first singling telegram.
  • Now, the rights to Happy Birthday to You are being hotly contested as the opportunity to make a big bucks from it is seriously being questioned.
  • Warner/Chappel Music Incorporated bought the song’s copyright back in the 1980s, letting it to collect millions in copyright costs since then.

Today, theatres, filmmakers, TV networks, and restaurants are being made to pay every time someone publicly sings Happy Birthday to You. Not surprisingly, many have adopted their own permutations to avoid the significant copyright impost.

A legal battle is now underway after a film production company said “enough” and filed a lawsuit, to overturn the copyright protecting this much loved song.

The proposed class action asks a US Federal Court to declare Happy Birthday to You as property in the public domain and that Warner/Chappel Music Inc. needs to reimburse millions in “unlawful” copyright charges it has gathered for copies of the song and any public performances.

Technically, licensing fees are owing if the song has been sung by any for profit entity.  In practice, that translates into a routine fee of $5,000 to $30,000 – just for singing Happy Birthday to You.

Ultimately the Court will decide how this happy birthday song bun fight will be settled and whether restaurant bands, or TV hosts singing Happy Birthday to You will be able to do so without stumping up some sizeable cash.  

Those who dispute the song should even be under copyright argue there is no evidence whatsoever that the sisters ever wrote its final lyrics, and even if they did, there is an absence of crucial copyright documents on record to confirm the copyright is watertight.

Meantime, you and I can go ahead and sing Happy Birthday to You as much as we like, loudly and lustily. Because, either way, private not for profit use has never been in question.

Those catchy lines will keep on being used regardless, sung in a multitude of languages and off-key pitches the globe over. In the flickering glow of candles, around celebratory cakes, Happy Birthday to You will keep going for the song has acquired a life of its own that smiling eyes and eager cheers confirm. With  sentiment we can all relate to, Happy Birthday to You will remain a timeless favorite.

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