Watch the Not-So-Happy History of Happy Birthday Song

Did you know that it was illegal to perform 'happy birthday' in public till 2016?

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No matter how old you are, what you do, which culture you belong to, when it comes to birthdays, everyone feels the same kind of excitement, pressure, planning and, of course, the song we sing to wish our dear ones – 'Happy Birthday!'


These clips are enough to show that 'Happy Birthday to You' is the most popular song in the English language. Even the 1988 Guinness World Records say so. However, it couldn't be performed in public until 2016.

Most people wouldn't know that before 2016, performing 'Happy Birthday to You' openly was illegal! Public performance of the song could have easily landed you in a lawsuit unless you paid a large royalty fee to one of the biggest media companies in the world. But someone fought the good fight and saved 'Happy Birthday to You,' returning it to the public. But we will get to all that later. First, a bit of history.

Louisville Kindergarten School in the 19th Century

The story beings in the 1890s with two sisters – Patty S Hill and Mildred J Hill. Patty was a principal at Louisville Kindergarten School and Mildred a pianist, songwriter, and composer. Together they composed a melody which went something like this:

Good morning to you

Good morning to you

Good morning to dear children

Good morning to all

This was sung by the teachers to greet their class every morning. Sometimes, 'dear children' would be replaced by 'teacher' when sung by students. And just like that, perhaps, on the birthday of a student, someone replaced 'good morning' with 'happy birthday!'


In 1893, the Hill sisters even got their song 'Good Morning to All' published in a book titled Song Stories for the Kindergarten.

Song Stories for the Kindergarten by Mildred J Hill and Patty S Hill.

(Photo Courtesy:

In 1901, we see 'Happy Birthday to You' song in print for the first time in a book called A Primer on Work and Play but without any musical notations or reference to the Hills' tune.

Happy birthday song.

(Photo Courtesy:

Between 1921 and 1924, hymn writer Robert H Coleman edited the song 'Good Morning to All' and produced 'Happy Birthday to You' as an alternative verse to the original, of course keeping the same melody.

The song's popularity grew and brought the complex case of royalty. Multiple lawsuits were brought by the Hill family, challenging the use of the song in these works. Finally, in 1935, they were declared the legal copyright holders of the song as it appeared in the revised edition of their 1893 book Song Stories: For the Kindergarten, published by Clayton F Summy Company.

Song Stories: For the Kindergarten

(Photo Courtesy:


Remember we spoke about one of the world's biggest media company?
That was Warner/Chappel Music.

In 1988, the copyright of the birthday song was acquired by Warner Communications from the publishers Clayton F Summy Co.

They made big bucks off the birthday song. Anyone who wanted to use the song in a movie or a TV show had to pay thousands of dollars.

One would think how we Indians escaped this. Well, we are hard working and smart and it shows in the adaptations of birthday song we have been composing for years with different melody and tunes.

Oh by the way, it's time to bring our hero, the fierce film-maker, Jennifer Nelson into the picture.

This is Jennifer Nelson.

(Photo Courtesy: Los Angeles Times)

Nelson had to pay $1,500 in royalties for using a clip of Happy Birthday song in her documentary on the song 'Good Morning to All.'

Warner/Chappel should have known better – Nelson is not a media giant with lots of money. She obviously did what she knew best. She filed a lawsuit against Warner/Chappel Music and took them to court.
The smart thing she did was that she did not fight just for herself. She demanded that everyone who paid to use the song be reimbursed for their cost as well.

And you know what helped her win the case?

A 3-dollar book from Amazon was presented as proof. A 1924 hymn book, which included the words 'Happy Birthday to You' set exactly to the music of 'Good Morning to All.'

That's not all, a 1922 songbook had 'Happy Birthday to You' along with a line that read, 'Special permission through courtesy of the Clayton F Summy Company.'

Read the highlighted part.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

They also argued that music published before 1921 is in the public domain.


In September 2016, a US judge ruled that Warner Bros' copyright claim was invalid, and the 1935 copyright applied to a single arrangement, a specific piano version instead of the melody and the lyrics or the song in its totality. and thus 'Happy Birthday to you' was freed forever.

Warner Music had to pay $14 million in 2016 to a group of people and organisations that had paid royalties to use 'Happy Birthday' since 1949.

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Edited By :Tejas Harad
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