Quick: what’s the most popular song?
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It’s not something by Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Not by Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift. It’s the song that’s sung every single day, likely thousands of times. It’s “Happy Birthday to You.”
But where did that song come from? Was it handed down in some divine way? Was it written by a mortal human being? Was it inscribed on a cave wall 1,000,000 years ago?
Let’s find out.
Sung, of course, to celebrate and wish an individual a happy birthday, “Happy Birthday to You” is, according to the 1998 Guinness Worlds Records, the most recognizable song in the English language. And the song’s lyrics have been translated into 18 languages (at least).
The melody for “Happy Birthday” comes from the song “Good Morning to All,” which has been traced back to American songwriter sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. Although the assertion that the sisters penned the song has been disputed over time.
Warner Chappell Music has previously held the copyright on the song in the United States and even collected licensing fees for its use. But in 2015 that copyright claim was declared invalid and Warner Chappell agreed to pay back $14 million in licensing fees.
Patty and Mildred
Over a century ago, Patty Hill was a kindergarten principal in Louisville, Kentucky. Her sister Mildred was a piano player and composer. The two used the song “Good Morning to All” as a tune for the kids because they found children could sing it easily.
The melody and lyrics to the song first appeared in print in 1912.
Early “Happy Birthday to You”
Although popular and sung often, none of the early “Happy Birthday” appearances in print included credits or copyright notes.
The complete text for the lyrics first appeared in print as the final four lyrics of Edith Goodyear Alger’s poem, “Roy’s Birthday,” which was published in A Primer of Work and Play, copyrighted by D. C. Heath in 1901. But with that, there was no reference to the lyrics being sung.
The first book to include “Happy Birthday” lyrics set to the tune of “Good Morning to All” bears a date of publication from 1911 in The Elementary Worker and His Work. But earlier references exist to a song called “Happy Birthday to You,” including an article from 1901 in the Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal.
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 published the song in 1928, edited by Byers, Byrum, and Koglin.
But in 1935, the Summy Company registered the copyright and credited writers Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R. R. Forman with the song.
More than five decades later, the Warner Chappell Music company purchased the company owning the copyright for $25 million, and the value of “Happy Birthday,” at that time, was estimated at $5 million. Warner then claimed the copyright for the song wouldn’t expire until 2030. As a result, the company claimed, that unauthorized public performances of the track were illegal unless royalties were paid.
In 2010, for example, royalty for a single use was a whopping $700, leading to some estimates saying it’s the highest-grossing song ever. That, of course, seems ridiculous given the common usage of the song today.
The Copyright Term Extension Act and the Public Domain
In 1998, the song gained more attention (ire?) with the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Act in Eldred v. Ashcroft in 2003 and that’s when Associate Justice Stephen Breyer specifically cited “Happy Birthday” in his dissenting opinion.
American law professor Robert Brauneis researched the song around this time and, in 2010, wrote, “it is almost certainly no longer under copyright.”
Good Morning to You Productions sued Warner Chappell for falsely claiming copyright to the song in 2013. In 2015, a federal judge said that the Warner Chapell copyright claim was invalid, ruling that the registration applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song and not to its lyrics or melody.
In 2016, the music company settled for $14 million and the court declared “Happy Birthday” was in the public domain. (The music and lyrics are also in the public domain today in the U.K.)
While many might think the copyright was meaningless, on March 6, 2014, Comedy Central personality Stephen Colbert attempted to sing the song in honor of the 90th anniversary of its 1924 publication but was in fact prevented from doing so due to the aforementioned copyright issues. Colbert instead premiered a “royalty-free” song, which was a parody of the U.S. National Anthem, which ended with the line, Warner Music can’t sue me, and the home of the brave.
Simple Wins Out
Day in and day out, songwriters all over are trying to write a tune that the world will remember, tinkering with lyrics, melodies, instruments, and more.
It’s a funny thought when you consider “Happy Birthday,” which boasts maybe the simplest lyrics of all time:
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday dear [NAME]
Happy birthday to you.
Boom. That’s it. Fame.
Sometimes people also sing at the end of the song: And many more! Or: How old are you now?
Famous Marilyn Monroe Performance
Though it occurred many decades ago, many can still cite the performance of the song by pop culture icon Marilyn Monroe, who sang it for then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy in May 1962. Since then, her rendition has been parodied many times over.