Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Happy Birthday to You," the highest-earning song in history, entered the public domain

Happy Birthday to You

Patty S. Hill (words) & Mildred J. Hill (music)

Writer(s): Patty Hill & Mildred J. Hill (see lyrics here)

Composed: 1893

First Charted: --

Peak: -- (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 70.0 (royalties)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 974.70 video, -- streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

In 1893, a 25-year-old teacher named Patty Smith Hill wrote the lyrics for a song she called “Good Morning to All.” She spent most of her life teaching kindergarten at the Louisville Experimental School and is regarded as a leading pioneer in early childhood education. ST Mildred Jane Hill was a pianist, composer, and authority on Negro spirituals. She provided the melody for her sister’s tune. The intent was for the song to be sung as a greeting each morning for Patty’s students. CF It was designed as a simple song for kindergartners to learn. The teacher sang “good morning to all” and the students sang back “good morning to you.” EE It was published in Song Stories for the Kindergarten in 1893. GM

Nearly 20 years later HD Patty supposedly suggested changing the words to “Happy Birthday to You” after the sisters attended a birthday party. ST However, the earliest printed versions didn’t include songwriting credits or a copyright notice. It was first published in a 1912 songbook by a piano manufacturer. EE It started gaining popularity in the 1920s and ‘30s and was featured in the 1931 Broadway musical The Band Wagon. EE It really took off when Western Union started using the song in 1933 as the first singing telegram. ST

Jessica, another Hill sister, fought for her sisters to be compensated for the copyright on the song. The Clayton F. Summy Co. published six versions of the song in 1935, crediting her sisters as the songwriters. EE After that, a licensing fee had to be paid for any time the song was sung in public on on a recording. EE It has been estimated that the song then secured $2 million in annual royalties HD with fees as much as $5000 for a single use of the song. HD That’s why staff at chain restaurants sing unfamiliar birthday tunes and TV shows and movies often turn to public domain songs like “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

In 1988, Warner/Chappell Music purchased the rights to the song and earned an estimated $2 million in annual revenue. EE The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as as the most popular song in the English language. Why? The song has made an estimated $70 million in royalties, more than any other song in history. It has also been translated into at least 18 languages.

However, Warner/Chappell was sued in 2013 for copyright abuse. The case determined that the original copyright was only for a specific piano arrangement of the song and not the melody and lyrics. GM Also, while it seemed clear the Hill Sisters wrote “Good Morning to All” there wasn’t enough evidence that they actually penned the lyrics for “Happy Birthday to You.” EE In fact, they may have plagiarized other greeting songs from the 19th century such as “Good Night to You All.” GM On September 22, 2015, a U.S. Federal court determined that their copyright claim was invalid, effectively making the song public domain. Warner/Chappell had to pay $15 million to various people who’d paid rights for the song since 1949. EE

Unknown to many is that the song is more than just the familiar version universally sung at birthday parties. It actually has two more verses, which can be found here.


First posted 9/4/2023.

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