The Strange Story Behind the “Happy Birthday” Song

March 21, 2023

happy birthday

The song “Happy Birthday To You” is easily the most popular song in the world, but there is a strange and complicated history behind this song. You also might not have realized that until recently it was protected by copyright.

The song was written by Patty Smith Hill, a kindergarten teacher, and her sister, Mildred Jane Hill, who was a musician. They began writing songs for kids in 1889 and later published them in a collection in 1893 called Song Stories for Children. But the “Happy Birthday” song didn’t start with that title or the lyrics as we know them today. The tune was called “Good Morning to All” and was accompanied by the “Happy Birthday” music.

It’s not known when or who wrote the current lyrics to “Happy Birthday To You,” but by the 1930s, it was being widely used. From here, things get murky. The Clayton F. Summy Company filed for a copyright of several versions of the song in 1935 with the assistance of Jessica Hill, a sister of the two women who originally wrote the song.

In 1944, the Hill Foundation, which had been created by Jessica and Patty Hill, sued Clayton F. Summy Company for not having the rights to the song. The Hill Foundation ended up keeping most of the rights while the Clayton F. Summy Company held the ownership of a small portion.

If things weren’t confusing enough, Joseph Sengstack, an accountant, bought Clayton F. Summy Company in 1932 and retained the rights to the song. After a series of name changes and purchases of other music publishers, the song found its way into the catalog of a music education company called Birchtree, Ltd., in the 1970s. Warner Communications bought that company in 1988 for $25 million, and then the acquisitions began.

Warner Communications became Time Warner and was later purchased by America Online to form AOL/Time Warner. If that wasn’t enough, AOL/Time Warner sold its music publishing wing to a group of investors who formed the Warner Music Group. Warner/Chappell Music, a division of Warner Music, currently owns the copyright to the song, “Happy Birthday,” which is where the song wound up.

The “Happy Birthday To You” song was believed to bring in about $2 million per year to the company, and Warner/Chappell Music had the copyright until the year 2030. It was okay to sing the song at home without getting slapped with a copyright infringement notice, but a license to perform the song had to go with it if the song was sung commercially.

Things changed in 2016 when a lawsuit claimed that Warner Music didn’t have a valid claim to the copyright for the song. The suit had been brought on by filmmakers and artists. Warner Music lost the case and settled for $14 million, which had to be paid to some of those who had paid royalties on the song since 1949. A final judgment of the case was that the song would be placed in the public domain, which it is now, making it free to sing wherever and whenever you would like.

Sources: Parade, New York Times, Snopes

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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