Happy Birthday to YOU!


I intended to write about the birthday hat.  I started by attempting to verify my assumption that the birthday song had been written by Ira Gershwin.  Wrong!  And then I discovered that until 2015, there was a copyright on the song and the cost to sing it was $US700!

Reading more deeply I learned:

  • Patty Hill, a kindergarten principal from Kentucky, and her sister created the music and lyrics for “Good Morning to All” as a song that young children would find easy to sing. Their combination of melody and lyrics in “Happy Birthday to You” first appeared in print in 1912.
  • Warner/Chappell collected about US$5,000 per day (US$2 million per year) in royalties for every use in film, television, radio, and anywhere open to the public, and for any group where a substantial number of those in attendance were not family or friends of the performer.
  • On September 22, 2015, a federal judge ruled that the Warner/Chappell copyright claim over the lyrics was invalid. The 1935 copyright held by Warner/Chappell applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song, not the lyrics or melody and that because there are no other claimants to the copyright, and the copyright to the melody long ago expired, the song was de facto in the public domain.
  • Famous performances include:
    • Marilyn Munroe singing to John Kennedy
    • On August 5, 2013, the first anniversary of its landing on Mars, the Curiosity Rover celebrated its “birthday” when it sang Happy Birthday on the Martian surface.
    • Stephen Colbert attempted to sing the song in honor of the 90th anniversary of the song’s 1924 publication, but was prevented due to the copyright issues. Colbert instead premiered his new “royalty-free” birthday song – which turned out to be a parody of the US national anthem and ends with the stanza “Warner Music can’t sue me, and the home of the brave.”

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