We all know the song. We sing it many times each year. We see it as one of many songs we can just sing and no one would care (like “This Old Man” or “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”) . Hell, we only sing four lines and three of those lines are the same words. Yet for years, many have claimed copyright of the song, with Time Warner currently claiming ownership. However, a federal judge has declared that the song is in the public domain.
The song as we know it is not even the original song. In 1893, Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill wrote a song for Patty’s kindergarten class to sing each morning. Originally the song was called “Good Morning to All” and the words went like this:
“Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning, dear children / Good morning to all.”
Later, the Hill sisters included this song in book called Song Stories for the Kindergarten. Over the years, other lyrics were suggested to used for someone’s birthday. From there we get the song we all know.
The current owners of the copyright, Warner/Chappell Music Inc. bought the rights from Clayton F. Summy Co. in 1988. Both companies charged for use of the song from everything to movies, documentaries, TV shows, to even when you go to a restaurant and the waiters sing happy to you. The have charge many people somewhere from 1,500 to 5,000 dollars for use of the song. Sometimes even for more money. It is believed to earn the company 2 million dollars a year since they have the bought the song.
After reviewing a recent case, Judge George H. King declared that the original copyright owned by Summy Co. at most only covers certain piano arrangements of the original song (which is in the public domain) and not the famous Happy Birthday lyrics. It is believed that the company earned 2 million dollars a year since they have the bought the song.
Warner/Chappell can appeal the decision and they just may if they have to pay back thousands of dollars that they may not have any claim to in the first place. There is also a debate in a number of circles if the Hill sisters even wrote the lyrics in question and if there is another copyright owner we don’t know about.
Personally, I think it is silly that we even have to debate this. The song is older than the Ford Model-T, the original creators have long since passed, and it’s not like the song is any current singer’s most signature tune. But we hear all the time about various pieces of art that cannot see the light of day because somebody wants money for the song playing in stock footage or something.
I understand the need for copyright, but they may as well be asking for financial compensation for use of “Rock a Bye Baby” or “The Star Spangled Banner.” I have no expectations for Warner/Chappell to return any money, but hopefully this is the last we hear of people having to deal with this issue.