Its power is in its simplicity. With only six notes, six words, and four lines — three of them the same — “Happy Birthday” is one of the most universal songs on the planet. Yet for something so straightforward, the celebratory tune has a surprisingly complicated history.
The song has been passed down for generations, with many people learning the tune just by listening to family and friends sing it at parties. But the way that it spreads so organically is what made the tune’s copyright a subject of debate that was only legally settled in 2015.
A Pair of Innovative Sisters Wrote the Song
Born in Kentucky in 1868, Patty Smith Hill was known for breaking the mold with early childhood education. Instead of structured learning, she championed a more natural method of kindergarten focused on children’s instincts and creativity.
Meanwhile, her sister Mildred J. Hill, born in 1859, was just as forward-thinking in the world of musicology. While she was also a composer and performer, the elder Hill focused her musical studies on Negro spirituals, often writing about the subject using the pen name “Johnan Tonsor.”
Together, the Hill sisters wrote the song “Good Morning to All.” Three of the four lines were just that, while the third line was “Good morning, dear children.” “She was the musician and I was, if it is not using too pretentious a word, the poetess," Patty said of their process in 1934, adding that Mildred, who also taught, would perfect the melody by trying it out on her young students. They included it in a songbook, Song Stories for Kindergarten, which they published in 1893.
The Song Began to Morph
Over time, the lyrics changed and the tune began to be used as a celebratory birthday song — the version that we know today. How exactly that happened is unknown, but by 1924, it appeared in another songbook edited by Robert Coleman with the Hill sisters’ original lyrics as the first verse and “Happy birthday to you” as the second.
The tune soon grew in popularity and started to appear more in print. But the Hills never copyrighted the “Happy birthday” version of the lyrics. Patty later said, “I was never a money-grubber.”
When it appeared in Irving Berlin’s 1933 Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer, however, Mildred and Patty’s youngest sister, Jessica, stepped in and filed a court case saying her family was owed royalties. The lawsuit was settled and the Hills were eligible for payment whenever the song was used. Then, in 1935, the Hills registered their work through the Clayton F. Summy Company with the now-famous birthday lyrics.
More Questions Emerge
That was far from the end of the saga, though. The company that they were registered with was sold off — twice — and in 1988, the song eventually fell into the library of Warner Music Group’s publishing arm Warner-Chappell, which was estimated to receive about $2 million a year from the song's usage, well into the 2010s.
But it wasn't long before questions were raised as to whether the song still qualified for copyright. Some believed the rights expired in 1949 since it was written in the 1890s, while others doubted that the Hills even wrote the birthday lyrics. Others believed it wouldn’t go into the public domain until 2030.
Even so, to avoid having copyright fees slapped on them, TV shows and films would often come up with alternative ways to capture the song. Restaurants even started to make up their own birthday tunes so there wasn’t any possibility of having to pay up. After all, when it was used, the fee could vary, costing as much as $10,000.
And even with the questions over the song's authorship, Warner-Chappell still owned the rights. “The truth is it kind of doesn’t matter,” WNYC’s On the Media reported. “Copyright law isn't an ironclad dictate, like the border of a country. It’s a lot more like land claims in the Wild West. You own what you can defend. Warner Music Group is a behemoth. No one’s ever seriously challenged it over ‘Happy Birthday.’”
A Final Ruling
In 2013, a filmmaker named Jennifer Nelson filed another lawsuit after paying $1,500 to use the song in her documentary. Two years later, her lawyers found a piece of evidence that changed everything: A version of the song in an old songbook from 1922 published without a copyright notice.
The long saga ended in 2016, as Warner Music Group agreed to pay back $14 million in settlement claims to those who had been charged to use the song since 1949. The song also had to be acknowledged as part of the public domain.
More than a century after the Hill sisters wrote the song that would inspire a cultural phenomenon, it finally became fair use.