Happy birthday to the most lucrative song of all time

NINETY years ago this month, the song millions of people sing around a candlelit cake was published in a songbook.

Even though nobody knows who actually wrote Happy Birthday’s lyrics, Warner Music contentiously owns the copyright to the song in its entirety. The media giant has therefore been earning millions from people celebrating their birthdays for a quarter of a century.

Walt Disney had to pay $5000 to use it in a parade and the royalties charge on a scene of Martin Luther King celebrating his birthday in civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize was so high that it never made it to DVD. More recently, the makers of the 2008 documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos, about the Hungarian cinematographers, paid $5000 to use the music in their film.

To sing Happy Birthday in a restaurant, at a concert or public place, royalties have to be paid. The most recent exception to the rule, it would seem, is if you sing it on Mars – as Curiosity Rover did to the surface of the planet last August, a year after it landed.

According to the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records, “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language.

The familiar six-note tune and original similar, but importantly not birthday-related, lyrics were the work of two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, who composed Good Morning To All in 1893 to sing to their pupils every day.

The Hill sisters, possibly forseeing of the copyright battles to come, instructed the trainee teachers they shared the song with never to write it down. However, in around 1911 the word ‘birthday’ started to sneak its way into versions of the tune and it was first published next to the melody in March, 1924.

In 1988, after a series of acquisitions, Warner Music became owners of the song and benefited from its reported $2 million of royalties per year. The Hill Foundation, set up in the sisters’ honour, has collected half of all royalties since 1893, with some going to their nephew Archibald, after Patty’s death in 1946.

Many have argued that Happy Birthday belongs in the public domain.

A collection of slightly bizarre versions of the song.


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