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DeVos: The song isn’t over

Jon DeVos
The Friday Report
Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

Sometime around 1890, two Kentucky sisters sat down and unknowingly made history by composing the most popular song that the world will likely ever hear. Today, their song is so well-known that millions sing it daily and likely will for centuries to come.

Patty Hill was a kindergarten teacher who became a prominent educator at the Columbia University Teachers College. Her older sister, Milly, was a pianist and together they composed and wrote children’s songs. One song that they wrote for kindergarten teachers to sing to their arriving students had a simple six-note melody and six repetitive words:

Good morning to you,

Good morning to you,

Good morning, dear children,

Good morning to you.

Not so memorable, huh? But over the next 20 years, something weird happened as the words gradually morphed into “Happy Birthday to you” and became the annual anthem that gets bellowed all our lives.

But the weirdness hadn’t really begun. Despite not even knowing who revised the words from the original song, the copyright on it doesn’t expire until the year 2030. Today Warner Music Group earns an effortless $2 million annually in royalties because it owns those six words.

The telegraph was in its heyday in 1933. The telephone was around but regarded as a useless oddity with no interest or infrastructure. Telegraphs often carried bad news and caused great anxiety when delivered to the door, usually notice of a death or other sad news. A Western Union public relations director decided to lighten things up and chose a dulcet-toned operator to sing “Happy Birthday” to some bewildered recipient, giving birth to the brief era of singing telegrams.

Enter the third sister, Jessy Hill, who administered the copyright on “Good morning to you” for her sisters. They stood quietly when Happy Birthday was used by Western Union and in off-Broadway plays but when Irving Berlin used it in a musical hit, the gloves came off. The sisters sued for copyright infringement on the song that sprang from their kindergarten jingle. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed swirling in rumors of an undisclosed settlement.

Chicago’s Summy Company, with the Hill’s authorization, published “Happy Birthday” in 1935 and copyrighted several versions of the song. Weird kicked back in seven years later when Patty and Jessica created The Hill Foundation to regain their interests in the song along with the “Happy Birthday” spinoff. They sued, saying the Summy Company had not purchased, but merely licensed the song and they wanted all the royalties that Summy had collected.

Solomon-like, the judgment gave a portion of both songs to each party but weirdly, two years later, in 1944; the Hill Foundation sold the rights to Summy for the second time, this time specifically selling the copyrighted six words.

Copyright laws in effect at the time granted exclusive use for 28 years with one similar extension that would have put Happy Birthday into the public domain in 1991. The Copyright Act of 1976 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 have pushed the earning power of that simple ditty out to 2030.

The publishing rights on Happy Birthday bounced between owners until Warner Communications bought them in 1988 for $25 million, a cool $4.16 million dollars per word. Warner merged with Time to become Time-Warner which was purchased by America Online to form AOL Time Warner which peeled off the music business into the Warner Music Group.

So, are you violating copyright laws when the family belts out an off-key rendition of the birthday song? Well, maybe so. If the song is sung at a private party by non-professionals or in a family setting, no laws are broken. But the law requires an ASCAP license to perform a copyrighted work in a public place, such as a restaurant. However, as noted by Snopes, the crime of singing happy birthday in Chuck E. Cheese is rarely prosecuted.

But wait! Weird’s not done. In 2013, a film company called Good Morning to You Productions filed a class action suit claiming the Hills never wrote Happy Birthday and it’s been in the public domain all along. And, the still-pending lawsuit says, Warner should give back all the money the song has earned over the last century.

At $4 million a word, I’d have written a lengthy ballad.


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