Happy Birthday...or not

April 9, 2013

"Happy Birthday to You" is one of the most widely recognized songs in the world.  Did you also know that the song brings in about $2 million per year to the copyright holders?  Ever wondered why they sing something other than "Happy Birthday to You" at your favorite restaurant? All your questions about this ubiquitous song are answered below (including questions you didn't know you had!).  Here's your "5 Question Guide" to "Happy Birthday to You":   1. You mean "Happy Birthday to You" isn't in the public domain? No, the song is still under copyright protection in at least the United States and Europe, and continues to bring in substantial licensing fees every year.   2. So what does that mean? Do I owe someone money for singing on Grandma’s birthday? Probably not.  The U.S. Copyright Act grants certain rights to copyright holders, one of which is the right to control when the work is performed “publicly.” A performance is considered “public” when the work is performed in a “place open to the public or at a place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered.” A performance is also considered to be public if it is transmitted to multiple locations, such as through television and radio. So, unless you sang Happy Birthday in a public place for others to hear, or broadcast it to the public, you don’t need to write a check.  Singing Happy Birthday with friends and family in your home is just fine. Notably, this is the reason that most restaurants have their own lyrics and music to perform for a customer’s birthday; singing Happy Birthday to You would constitute a public performance.   3. Who wrote "Happy Birthday to You"? Most agree that the song is a variation of “Good Morning to All,” a children’s song written and composed in 1893 by sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill of Louisville, Kentucky.  Exactly who modified the original song is unclear.   4. Who owns the rights to "Happy Birthday to You"? The rights are currently owned by Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.  According to some reports, the company brings in as much as $2 million a year from licensing the song for public performances in movies, television, radio, as well as live performances.   5.  So when can I sing “Happy Birthday” in public? The song will not officially enter the public domain in the United States until 2030, or 95 years after publication (a term that has been extended several times by the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998).  The song will enter the public domain in Europe in 2016, or 70 years after the death of Patty Hill (who died May 25, 1946). However, some believe that Happy Birthday may already be well within the public domain in the U.S.  For an extensive and thorough analysis of the history and copyright status of “Happy Birthday,” see the research paper by Robert Brauneis at SSRN (“Copyright and the World's Most Popular Song”).