“Happy Birthday To You”: The Celebratory Song With the Complex Legal History

By Karen Harris

Source: (chicagoparent.com)

Finally, in 2015, more than 90 years after it was first published, the song everyone sings before blowing out their birthday candles, the ditty “Happy Birthday To You,” entered the public domain. Now we will begin to see the birthday song being sung in movie and television scenes, something that was strictly forbidden without the proper authorization before. In fact, the sisters who penned the simple song kept such tight control over their creation that “Happy Birthday To You” turned into one of the highest-grossing songs of all time. Here is a look at the complex legal history of the happy little birthday song. 

Mildred and Patty Hill. Source: (usatoday.com)

The Hill Sisters

Patty and Mildred Hill were sisters who both taught school. In 1893, they wrote a simple little ditty to welcome their students into class every morning. It was essentially the same tune as “Happy Birthday To You” but the lyrics were “Good Morning to All”. It took nearly two more decades before the sisters tweaked the lyrics to say “Happy Birthday To You.” It took even longer…until 1924…for the song to be published. That’s when the legal trouble began. 

A Western Union singing telegram. Source: (internsover40.blogspot.com)

The Song Became Free Use

After the tune and lyrics to “Happy Birthday To You” were published, the Hill sisters lost control of the song. It was being used on radio programs, in a Broadway play, on Vaudeville, and for Western Union singing telegrams…all without compensation to the song’s authors and composers. That’s when a third Hill sister stepped in. Jessica Hill was able to acquire the copyright to her sisters’ song in 1934. 

Marilyn Monroe famously sang "Happy Birthday To You" to President John F. Kennedy. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Copyright Laws Protect the Creator

Copyright laws are complex, but the overarching purpose is to protect the creator of intellectual and artistic property and to prevent others from profiting from this property without appropriately compensating the creators. What that meant is that anytime “Happy Birthday To You” was performed in public or for profit – such as in a movie or singing telegram – the Hill sisters would get a royalty. This can be a costly endeavor, which is why you never hear “Happy Birthday To You” sung by the servers at your favorite restaurant. Instead, they sing another happy birthday or congratulations song. The same is true for movies and TV. To include the song, the studio would need to secure the rights from the Hill sisters and pay for its use. 

Source: (thedayusa.com)

A Simple Song with a High Price Tag

Over the years, the royalties that the Hill sisters collected for “Happy Birthday To You” were staggeringly high. This simple little song has evolved into one of the more lucrative ditties ever penned. Walt Disney, for example, paid $5,000 to include the song in a parade. When the documentary about Martin Luther King, Jr., called Eyes on the Prize, was released on DVD, the birthday scene was cut. It was simply too expensive to pay the royalty fees on the DVD version of the movie. Royalties from “Happy Birthday To You” surpass the $2 million mark annually. 

What's a birthday without singing "Happy Birthday To You"? Source: (wnycstudios.org)

Warner Music Acquired the Song

In 1988, through a series of complicated legal moves, Warner Music secured the rights to “Happy Birthday To You” from the estate of the Hill sisters. A 2010 argument presented by Robert Brauneis claimed that the song should be in the public domain because the Hill sisters did not correctly renew their copyright when it was set to expire in the 1960s. The legalities of using “Happy Birthday To You” came to a head in 2015 when a filmmaker producing a documentary about the Hill sisters and their famous song, was being charged a royalty fee to include the song in the film. The case went to court where in June of 2016, once and for all, it was ruled that Warner Music did not have a valid copyright on the song and the tune is in the public domain. 

Source: (newser.com)

A Simple Song, A Complex History

“Happy Birthday To You” is one of the most popular and best-known songs in history. Even though it is short and simple, the catchy, upbeat tune experienced a surprisingly strange and complicated history. But after the 2016 ruling, we can all safely sing the song of celebration in public. 

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.