Reminder: Despite What You May Have Heard, Happy Birthday Should Be In The Public Domain

from the sing-it-loud dept

A little over two years ago, we had an interesting discussion about the copyright status of the song "Happy Birthday." Now, you may have heard that the song is covered by copyright, by the estate of Patty and Mildred Hill (or, to quote a really old Aaron Sorkin-penned TV show: "wait, it took two people to write that song?"). It apparently generates about $2 million per year -- as any TV show or movie or restaurant or whatever that sings the song is supposed to pay up (side note: this is why many restaurants have their "own" happy birthday songs).

However, in that discussion we pointed to a paper that researched the history of the copyright on the song, and found that it should almost certainly be in the public domain. The Hill sisters had taken the melody from elsewhere (so, there should be no copyright on the melody) and written a song called "Good Morning to All." Someone else later added the lyrics for "Happy Birthday." Years later, there were a series of complex legal wranglings (and some underhanded maneuvers), and basically two parties, neither of whom realistically held the publishing rights to the song we know as Happy Birthday (but who probably did hold the rights to certain derivative works that no one performs any more), effectively appeared to agree to team up and simply to pretend via those derivative works that they did hold the publishing rights on "Happy Birthday," and no one has ever challenged them. In the 1960s, when the copyright was renewed, the company claiming to hold the publishing rights at the time failed to provide the necessary documentation to prove it held the rights.

Anyway, I bring it up again, because Ben Sisto has just done a really nice job recapping many of the details of the story, noting that Happy Birthday is almost certainly in the public domain:
To recap: due to Summy-Birchard Co.'s failure to properly renew in 1962, GMTA/HBTY would have entered the public domain. If this failure were to be dismissed as an excusable accident, we are still absent any document which proves beyond doubt that Mildred and or Patty Hill, the most plausible authors of the GMTY/HBTA combination, actually wrote it. Absent that proof, WMG only has an interest in the additional copyright matter (piano solo and 2nd verse) registered to Orem & Forman in 1934. While valid, those are separate matters from the GMTA/HBTY combination. A rote, uncreative variation on the earlier work can not be registered as a derivative; there has to be some added originality or editorial insight. The GMTA/HBTY as we know it today appeared regularly in print prior to the 1930s. Neither Orem or Forman's mostly forgotten additions had any impact on it's market potential. I believe GMTA/HBTY or simply Happy Birthday to You is currently a public domain work.
Sisto adds one additional, and very telling bit of research to the original paper as well, noting that Patty Hill had a reputation for being meticulous in business dealings, and that the Hills had properly registered copyrights on other works, just not Happy Birthday -- implying that they had not written it:
As an aside, I suggest reading Agnes Snyder's 1972 paper for the ACEI, Dauntless Women in Childhood Education. In it, Snyder paints a picture of Patty Hill as a strong, dedicated intellectual who rose from a humble background to become one of the most important voices speaking on behalf of progressive early childhood education in America. After reading it, I became even more convinced the Hill sisters didn't pen the GMTA/HBTY combination. In all aspects of their professional careers they were articulate and exact. While perhaps it's not court-worthy evidence, it becomes hard to imagine GMTA/HBTY would have simply slipped through the cracks while their other works received protection through proper notice and registration. It seems more the case that the Hills felt entitled to rights due to HBTY's similarity to GMTA; and as much as I've come to respect the Hills I'd stick to the argument that similarity isn't enough to claim authorship.
Unfortunately, of course, no one's going to challenge this and the current publisher, Warner Music, is surely going to insist that it does hold the proper rights, so the world goes on with the myth that Happy Birthday is protected by copyright.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 29th, 2010 @ 5:59pm

    Happy Birthday to You is protected by copyright. And by "copyright", I mean "the threat of having to settle or go through with an expensive trial that you can't afford".
    As Joshua would say, "What's the difference?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Oct 29th, 2010 @ 6:03pm


    What's the difference to you?
    What's the difference to you?
    You still pay a lawyer.
    What's the difference to you?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Wolfy, Oct 29th, 2010 @ 7:17pm

    Hilarious, and sad at the same time, but true.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Prashanth (profile), Oct 29th, 2010 @ 8:03pm

    Re: Re:

    May WMG sue you,
    May WMG sue you!
    Please do become poor, and
    May WMG sue you!

    How poor are you now?
    How poor are you now?
    Have we sued you enough?
    How poor are you now?

    Are you [all of the following in millions of dollars in debt] 1, are you 2, are you 3, ... [ad infinitum]?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    RAGE, Oct 29th, 2010 @ 11:08pm

    So ridiculous. Such bullshit. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, but it's true; who has the legal resources (AKA money) to go up against WMG? And they're not going to let something like that go easily.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 30th, 2010 @ 5:25am

    Supposing there is no new Mickey Mouse Protection Act, when will these copyrights finally expire for good in the USA?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Josef Anvil (profile), Oct 30th, 2010 @ 6:38am

    Who cares?

    As sad as it is that anyone would claim that Happy Birthday is copyrighted, I don't think the vast majority of us really care.

    It has to be the most infringed upon song in the history of music if it is copyrighted. Now I have to go through YouTube and see if there are any happy birthday videos that have been hit with DMCA takedown notices.

    I really would love for WMG to begin suing everyone who has infringed on this song. They will be sending out more legal notices than HADOPI in France if they tried.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 30th, 2010 @ 9:22am

    Another one bites the dust!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Ben Sisto, Oct 30th, 2010 @ 10:54am

    Happy Birthday, Edgar

    Thanks for the repost, Mike!

    As I mention at the end of the article, Robert Brauneis reports in "Copyright and the World's Most Popular Song" that the Association for Childhood Education International, co-founded by Patty Smith Hill, filed IRS Form 990ís for 2004, 2005, and 2006 claiming HBTY royalty income of $584,352; $631,866; & $738,510 respectively.

    They're getting the $ because the Hill Foundation Inc. had an agreement with Clayton F. Summy to share royalties from an out-of-court settlement decades ago. The ACEI's eligibility to do so however, is questioned by the same case made against Warner Music Group. If we assume the ACEI keeps getting royalties we're talking a potential $5,843,520.00 - $7,385,100.00 before 2030. That fact complicates matters for me, personally. While I don't feel WMG should be allowed to collect a potential $14.75 million over the next decade if they're not legally entitled to, I don't want to throw a brick at the ACEI either.

    So the best thing to do: get more copyright lawyers fact-checking and debating the Brauneis paper. I have yet to find, but would love to read a counter-argument made with as much detail.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 30th, 2010 @ 10:55am

    public domain in canada


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Legal Scholar, Oct 30th, 2010 @ 2:12pm


    "What's the difference?"

    There is a huge difference, just like there is a huge difference between an executive agreement and a treaty. Sure, the result maybe the same, but there is a huge difference between the two. It's disingenuous for you to just ignore the huge difference and pretend that it doesn't exist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    james43062, Oct 30th, 2010 @ 9:46pm

    happy birthday

    hey, from the fine copyright folks:

    we saw your kids last birthday party... nice hats. the cake looked great and you owe us fifty bucks.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 31st, 2010 @ 12:34am

    Funny, I never heard or thought it wasn't public domain. Most people don't think it's copyrighted, and treat it as such.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Charles Grossman (profile), Oct 31st, 2010 @ 5:42am

    Where do these royalties come from?

    Restaurants use their own birthday songs, movies rarely include "Happy Birthday", and even kid-oriented radio stations don't play recordings of this song. Are people paying to download it? Where are the royalties coming from?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    NullOp, Oct 31st, 2010 @ 7:15am


    Happy Birthday is the definitive birthday song. It is ALREADY in the PD by default. There is nothing anyone can do to change this. The people have decided this, period.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 31st, 2010 @ 11:19am

    I think 500 years from now, this same argument will still persist. Even if copyrights do not get extended forever, who would actually admit that their copyright expired. The fear will live on.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Ben Sisto, Oct 31st, 2010 @ 12:56pm

    Re: Birthday parties

    I believe it's not a violation of law to have a private singing of the tune at say, your apartment for a friend's birthday. Royalties are from licensed use such as in films, plays, TVs shows commercials, a toy that plays the song, etc. These are all versions that would include lyrics; the base melody is 100% public domain.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    marak (profile), Oct 31st, 2010 @ 1:58pm

    Hmm well my fiancee's birthday is coming up soon, should i send them a cheque now - for performance of course(were going todo a badly sung cover version) - but their work is important, and i cannot condone artists losing income from me being a dirty pirate.

    /sarcasim (did i REALLY need to put that part in? :P)

    and again, it took TWO people to write this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    tax cpe, Oct 31st, 2010 @ 6:54pm


    I don't think it's going to expire ever, considering the companies who owns these copyrights.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    Paul (profile), Nov 1st, 2010 @ 7:58am

    Why doesn't someone sing "Happy Birthday" to the Hill Sisters...

    ... and have the music played constantly in the background of a discussion of why this song is most certainly in the Public Domain.

    One might assume that someone like the EFF or even the ACLU (since this is most certainly theft from the public commons) help fight the resulting copyright suit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Daniel Restrepo, Nov 2nd, 2010 @ 9:57am

    It might be a bit exaggerated

    It might be a bit exaggerated, but I think that kind of discussions are kinda philosophical.
    if you use it for commercial purposes must pay the required amount, but if it transcends to something familiar or non-commercial, legal procedures are ridiculous.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    sabistin (profile), Jun 14th, 2012 @ 11:30pm

    Birthday Quotes

    Happy birthday songs must be unique as the are going to which someone special so these types of problems like copy wright are usual but have to cut off,we have a class of great Birthday Quotes and all other.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Tim Bird, Feb 14th, 2014 @ 11:26am

    Re: Why doesn't someone sing "Happy Birthday" to the Hill Sisters...

    Because they both died over 50 years ago.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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