Happy Blank-Blank to You!

by maxmosher

It is the most recognizable song in the English language. You heard it as a little kid, with a mixture of excitement and crankiness from too much attention, stressful party games, and bottled Coke, relieved that cake was to soon follow. It continues to be sung to you now, when embarrassment has long replaced excitement and worry about wrinkles has replaced concern about the unfairness of pin the tail on the donkey. Even if you are one of the few who have never sang it (out of principle, or something), you know all the words, all six of them! The song is universal, enshrined in our minds and memories, but doesn’t belong to us.

‘Happy Birthday to You’ began life as ‘Good Morning to All’, written by Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893. The sisters taught kindergarten in a log-cabin in Louisville, Kentucky. Named the Esta Cabin, and where First Lady Eleanor Roosvelt visited in the 1940’s and broke a floorboard, the building remarkably still exists as a historical site and centre for weaving. The Hills wrote the simple melody with repetitious lyrics for ease of children’s memory, and it has been suggested that it was the students themselves who gradually turned the song into one about birthdays at parties. The song was first published as ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in 1912, but some have pointed out how similar the song is to a number of popular ditties of the mid to late-19th century, such as ‘Greetings to All’ and ‘Happy New Year to All’.

In 1935, the song was copyrighted as ‘Happy Birthday to You’ with a new company formed to protect the the copyright.  In 1998, the rights were sold to Time-Warner and later fell into the hands of a group of investors headed by Edgar Bronfman Jr., who was one of the leading opponents to free file-sharing technology like Napster. The company claims that one cannot sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ for profit without paying royalties, which is why many restaurants have taken to writing their own birthday songs. Whenever you hear ‘Happy Birthday’ in a movie or a TV show it was paid for. Warner received around two million dollars for use of the song in 2008, and they claim that the US copyright will not expire until 2030.

I’m no lawyer, but this is stupid.  

First of all, the words and music of the Hills’ ‘Good Morning to All’ have long expired and are now part of the public domain. They are the exact same song.  

This from the writer on Wikipedia: “Except for the splitting of the first note in the melody ‘Good Morning to All’ to accommodate the two syllables in the word ‘happy’, ‘Happy Birthday to You’ and ‘Good Morning to All’ are melodically identical. Precedent (regarding works derived from public domain material, and cases comparing two similar musical works) seems to suggest that the melody used in ‘Happy Birthday to You’ would not merit additional copyright status for one split note.”

Many legal scholars, including Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, have expressed doubts that the song can still be copyrighted.

I would consider the fact that the Hill sisters are long dead, that the copyright of song is does not benefit their off-spring, and the influence of past songs and the original school children when arguing that the song should be part of the public domain.

I think it’s time to assert our rights to the song of our childhood. We should take inspiration from the lunch counter protests of the Civil Rights Movement and the same-sex marriage battles going on today, and challenge Warner’s copyright in court. We should plan a massive sing-along of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ (perhaps on the date of one of the Hill sister’s births?) and see if Bronfman wants to take us on. Of course, we’d have to be doing it ‘for profit’ so maybe we can ask for donations for the legal fight.

Like the lovely melody ‘Simple Gifts’, which began as a Shaker dance song and ended up in car commercials, the journey of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ from Kentucky log cabin schoolhouse to a multi-billion dollar corporation, reflects the story of America itself.

Esta Cabin, Kentucky