© 2022 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Musical Space: Why You Can't Sing 'Happy Birthday' Anytime, Anywhere


“Happy Birthday to You” is one of the best known songs in the world, but one rarely hears it in a movie or on TV.

There is a monetary reason for this: “Happy Birthday To You” is copyright protected, and to use it can cost a producer as much as $30,000.

It is incredible to me that the song is not in the public domain, but this is one of those strange stories born at the intersection of popular music and copyright law.

The tune was written for a song "Good Morning to All" in 1893 by Louisville kindergarten teachers Patty and Mildred Hill.

No one knows who later added the birthday lyrics to the sister’s melody, but when the Hill’s publishing company applied to renew the copyright in 1935, the legal language was vague enough to make it seem as though the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” were newly written by them.

There is strong evidence that the birthday song has been sung at parties since before 1900, but no one has had the wherewithal to take the matter to court; it is cheaper to pay the fee.

This is the reason chain restaurants have their own birthday song for the wait staff to sing, and it is more likely you will hear “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” at a movie birthday party.

The song now earns about two million dollars a year for its current owners, record giant the Warner Music Group, and their copyright protection will last until 2030.

Here’s hoping we all have the song sung to us then.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.