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Who Wrote Happy Birthday? Is it Public Domain?

Good Morning and Happy Birthday Song

Who Wrote “Happy Birthday to You”?

Arguably the most well-known song in the English language, “Happy Birthday” didn’t start as a birthday sing-along.

“Happy Birthday” began as a little ditty called “Good Morning to You,”  penned in 1893 by Kentucky school-teaching sisters Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill.

Mildred J. Hill, an accomplished pianist, organist and musicologist, came up with the tune for “Good Morning to You.” Her sister, a noted and influential educator who later served on the faculty of Columbia University Teachers College for thirty years, wrote these simple lyrics to accompany Mildred’s melody:

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.

“Good Morning to You” was first published in 1893 in the songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten.

Nobody seems to know precisely when the words “Good Morning to You” were supplanted by “Happy Birthday to You,” or who was responsible for the new version, but the revised lyrics started showing up in song books as alternate verses around 1924.

According to UnhappyBirthday.com, “Working with the Clayton F. Summy Publishing Company, [sister] Jessica Hill published and copyrighted Happy Birthday in 1935. While the copyright should have expired in 1991, [term of] copyright has been extended repeatedly over the last quarter of the twentieth century and the copyright for Happy Birthday is now not due to expire until at least 2030.”

In 1998, publishing giant Warner Chappell Music bought the rights to the Summy catalog for a reported $25 million…most of which undoubtedly was for the rights to “Happy Birthday,” which for decades has earned millions of dollars a year in performance royalties for the publisher and for the Hills’ estate.

According to Warner/Chappell, “Happy Birthday to You” is the “…all-time official birthday song, it has been sung in countless movies, television programs and commercials. In a recent interview, Jay Morgenstern of the Warner/Chappell Music Group explained: ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY is a very glamorous song and is probably the most well-known song ever written.’ The melody was written in 1893 by two school teaching sisters who wrote it as a classroom greeting called ‘Good Morning To You.’ The birthday lyric was added later.

Public Domain Controversy and Court Battle

The controversy began in 2013 when  A New York filmmaker has filed a class-action lawsuit to block Warner/Chappell Music from holding the rights to “Happy Birthday.”

Tentative Settlement Puts “Happy Birthday” in the Public Domain

Warner Music Group and others who fought to hold the copyright on “Happy Birthday to You” have given up their claims to the popular song, according to the terms of a proposed settlement deal that signals the end of a contentious three-year dispute.

The proposed deal, which was disclosed Monday in court filings, offers up to $14 million for those who paid licensing fees to use the song.

The lawyers who battled Warner Music and its publishing arm, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., could also see a windfall. In court papers, attorneys said they planned to ask a federal judge for about $4.6 million to cover their legal costs. —LA Times

As of this writing (07.09.16) the settlement is tentative pending approval by U.S. District Judge George H. King.

SIDEBAR: Have you ever been to a restaurant like Joe’s Crab Shack — a corporate chain store — and witnessed one of those annoying (unless it’s YOUR birthday!) “Happy Happy Birthday” routines that the restaurant staff has been trained to perform? Why don’t they just sing “Happy Birthday to You”? COPYRIGHT LAW. The restaurants would have to pay (and could be sued for not paying) for the commercial use of the copyrighted song. With the proposed settlement to put “Happy Birthday” in the Public Domain, those concocted birthday songs at restaurants may be replaced by the original “Happy Birthday to You.”

The Most Famous Version of Happy Birthday Ever Performed?

Below see the iconic Marilyn Monroe singing HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU to President John F. Kennedy on May 19th, 1962 at Madison Square Garden in New York. The song was also occasionally performed in concert (but never on record) by Elvis Presley.”

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