Entertainment Management department guest blog - "Happy Birthday".... to all of us!

By Bay State College on October 5, 2015

Below, Patrick Preston, L.P.D, chair of Bay State College's Entertainment Management program gives us a little history lesson about the "Happy Birthday" song.. 

A few weeks ago, you may have heard that there was a minor earthquake in the music industry.  Judge George H. King, a federal judge in Los Angeles, ruled that there was no copyright protection on the song “Happy Birthday” or as it's more formally known, “Happy Birthday to All.” You will know this song from all of the atonal renditions you had to suffer through before you could actually get to your birthday cake and presents as a kid. But, did you know that up until September 22, 2015, if you wanted to perform this song publically, or include it in a film, television show, stage performance, etc., you would have had to pay the music rights company, Warner/Chappell Music? If you didn’t know that, that is not surprising; not too many people did know it.

The song is about 120 years old and it was written by two sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill, who were kindergarten teachers from Kentucky.  Their original song from the 1890s was called “Good Morning to All,” and it was used to welcome the children to their kindergarten class. Over time and through use, “Good Morning to All” morphed into “Happy Birthday to All.” Although the sisters were traditionally credited with writing the song, some claimed that the song was actually much older, and the Hill sisters only adapted it for their use. Whether or not that is true, by the 1920s, the sisters were credited as the songwriters. And that is when things start to get murky.

In 1935, a company called the Clayton F. Summy Co. claimed the copyright on the song, saying that the company had been assigned the rights to it by the Hill sisters. Flash forward to 1988, when the then Warners Music Group bought the rights to the song from the Summy Co. By enforcing the copyright claim of the Summy Co. that came with the rights purchase, the new owners, Warners Music Group began to collect significant revenue from people who wanted to use the song. Some claim that Warners Music Group’s music publishing division, Warner/Chappell, were earning approximately $2 million per year just on royalties from “Happy Birthday.” That’s a lot of cake.

But, two years ago, Warner/Chappell was sued by Good Morning to You Productions, a company that was making a documentary about the song and for the use of said song, would have had to pay Warners/Chappell royalties.

As the case came before Judge King in LA, the plaintiffs were able to convince him that the Clayton F. Summy Co. never had the right in 1935 to assert copyright ownership over “Happy Birthday” and subsequently, Warner/Chappell never had the right to collect royalties on a copyright that they didn’t own. According to this ruling, we are all free to sing “Happy Birthday” publically anywhere and anytime we want.

However, before we all burst into song, there are two things to keep in mind: 1) Warner/Chappell Music is mulling over an appeal of the ruling, not surprising given the amount of money involved and the potential financial payouts that the company will have to make if Judge King’s ruling stands; and, 2) according the Los Angeles Times, a professor at the George Washington School of Law who has studied the copyright history and claims of this song, Robert Braumeis, says that there may still be some rights that belong to the heirs of the Hill sisters. But…for the time being at least, it looks like we can have our cake and eat it sing it too.