A couple of months ago I was having dinner with a friend at one of my favorite restaurants. There was a family group at the next table celebrating one of their kid’s birthdays. The waiters and waitresses gathered around with a Birthday Cake and sang – well, I don’t know what it was, but it was certainly not “Happy Birthday”. A little while later I asked our waiter, who had been one of the signers, why they had not sung the traditional “Happy Birthday Song”.
He told me they were no longer allowed to sing it because it was copyright protected and the restaurant would have to pay a royalty on it each time they used it. I kid you not.
One of the most recognized songs in the English language, a simple tune consisting of four lines that’s been sung countless times to children and adults, including President Kennedy in a historically sultry rendition. And now they cannot sing it to you or yours without paying someone a royalty! Unbelievable.
Despair not; however, apparently there is hope. “Happy Birthday to You” is now the subject of a new lawsuit against the publishing arm of Warner Music Group, which claims copyright ownership in the song.
A complaint filed in federal court claims that “Happy Birthday to You” has been in the public domain since at least 1921. The suit seeks class action status on behalf of anyone who paid a royalty to use “Happy Birthday to You” in the past four years.
The song allegedly generates at least $2 million a year in licensing fees for Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., which claims to own the exclusive copyright to the tune through a company it acquired, Summy-Birchard.
The plaintiff is a producer who is directing a documentary about the song and had to pay a $1,500 licensing fee to use it in the film. The plaintiff’s company is called Good Morning to You Productions.
According to the research, the melody of “Happy Birthday to You” was adopted from another song, “Good Morning to All,” composed by Mildred Jane Hill in the late 19th century. (It’s not clear if the melody was original or if she borrowed it from other songs.) Her sister, Patty, wrote the words, and asked Mildred to write a melody “to express those words and emotions and ideas fitted to the limited musical ability of a young child”.
By the early 1900s, “Happy Birthday to You” began appearing in a variety of songbooks as alternative text for the “Good Morning to All” melody. Before then, the nation lacked a standard birthday song (how did they survive, I wonder?).
Summy-Birchard can only claim ownership if it can trace its title back to the author or authors of the song. Yet it appears that the only possible authors to whom it can trace title are Mildred and Patty Hill themselves, and there is scant evidence that either of them wrote the song.
On the good side, not long after witnessing the waiters and waitresses attempt the (bad) imitation of the “Happy Birthday Song”, I was walking my dog when I happened upon another family group celebrating a birthday on the patio of a different restaurant. The group, including the staff, was very cheerfully and very loudly singing the song to a very happy little toddler.
I smiled and joined the chorus – happy for the opportunity to metaphorically render half a peace sign to “the establishment”.
Live Long and Prosper...