Question from Suzie Q.:
I’ve heard that the “Happy Birthday” Song is patented. Is this true? If so, what’s the background info on this?
As a song, “Happy Birthday to You” is not eligible for a patent but it is copyright material which means that royalties should be paid every time the song is sang in public.
The melody of “Happy Birthday to You” is from a song written by two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hil in 1893 titled “Good Morning to All.” The song was published as part of the book Song Stories for the Kindergarten with the lyrcis:
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.
No one knows exactly when the lyrics of the song were adapted to Happy Birthday to You but the song first showed up in print in 1912. Between then and 1934, the songs was published in various song books but none of these books had a copyright notice for the song. Because of this lack of copyright, Jessica Hill working with the Clayton F. Summy Company, was able to copyright the song in 1935 siting the similarities to “Good Morning to All.” The Clayton F. Summy Company was bought by Birch Tree Group, Ltd. who held the copyright until 1998. In 1998, the company was purchased by Time Warner. Today, Time Warner holds the copyright for “Happy Birthday to You.” In 2008, the royalties for the use of the song in movies, ads, television, radio and any public event were $5,000 a day. The copyright for the song will expire in 2030.
The validity of the copyright of the song is often questioned. Many have said the song is not an original work worthy of copyright for many reasons. These reasons included that the melody was very similar in nature to many other popular songs of the time and there is no proof of who actually wrote the lyrics. They were mostly likely improvisations of children who had heard the original song. Still since it first copyright no one has brought the question of the validity to court and probably never will so until 2030 royalties will still be paid for the use of “Happy Birthday to You.”