Have you ever wondered why you don’t hear the waiters sing Happy Birthday while celebrating a birthday at a chain restaurant, like Red Robin or Buca DiBeppo? Instead they gather round the table and clap while singing a peppy celebratory song, either of their own creation or possibly another traditional song like For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. The reason for this is simply Happy Birthday is not in the public domain; it’s actually copyrighted and, in short, money is owed to those who hold the copyright when the song is sung in public.
According to the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records Happy Birthday is the most recognized song in the English language. The origins of Happy Birthday date back to 1880’s, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill introduced this simple tune to their kindergarten class using the lyrics Good Morning to You. As time went on, informal lyrics such as Happy Vacation To You, Good Bye To You and eventually Happy Birthday were added.
In 1893, the sisters officially published the tune Good Morning To You in the songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten by the Summy Company but they did not include the lyrics of Happy Birthday. The first publication to include the Happy Birthday lyrics in the second chorus wasn’t until 1912 in The Beginners’ Book of Songs, published by the Cable Company, a piano manufacturer. Even as the song gained popularity the sisters never published or copyrighted the lyrics of Happy Birthday.
In 1935, Happy Birthday was officially copyrighted and the Summy Company won the rights to the song. The Summy Company was soon taken over by Birch Tree Group Limited, who continued to enforce the song’s copyright. In 1988, Warner Communications acquired Birch Tree Group Limited along with 50,000 other titles for $25 million. Warner Communications continues to insist one cannot sing the Happy Birthday lyrics for profit without paying royalties.***
In 2008, Warner collected over $5,000 per day ($2 million per year) in song-related royalties. Warner claims copyright for every use in film, television, and radio, anywhere open to the public or “for any group where a substantial number of those in attendance are not family or friends of whoever is performing the song.” ***
So the next time you see a movie and there is a scene celebrating a birthday or you are at restaurant marking a milestone occasion, you may hear For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow or an original birthday song, but not the most recognized song in the English language.