Birthday cake isn’t the only thing being served
One of the richest exercises in the wheel of capitalism was Warner/Chappell Music’s monopoly over “Happy Birthday to You.” The most well-known song in the English language has a treasured history, from roots in African-American culture, to a brief, deplorable era of copyrights and class-action lawsuits.
In 1893, two Kentucky schoolteachers conceived the tune, set to the melody of “Good Morning to All.” Patty Smith Hill, with lyrics, and Mildred J. Hill, with piano, based the song in part on the cries of the African-American street vendors. They had to teach the songs to children, so they had to be as simple and terse as possible. Hence the four-line ditty.
From there, the teaching duo repurposed the song endlessly for holidays and times of day. But it was the original birthday jingle that spread like wildfire, making it to the stage with the Broadway show “The Band Wagon” in 1931. The producers did not have to pony up money for the copyright claim, because there was none enforced, and it’s possible that the song emerged on the radio at this time, too.
The Hill sisters had published the song in Song Stories for the Kindergarten in 1924, and the tune continued to be republished for years. Jessica Hill — Patty and Mildred’s sister — claimed the copyright 10 years after Song Stories, and when it was republished the following year, the Clayton F. Summy Company did so with a copyright notice attached. Here enters the copyright details, for the tale of “Happy Birthday to You” is inextricably linked to copyright law and America’s affinity to capitalism. Clayton F. Summy Co. reportedly held the song’s rights after the book’s publishing. Every sieve of copyright that, according to many different attorneys, the song may or may not have fallen through since, follows Clayton F. Summy Co., who expected to have the rights until 1991.
The course of “Happy Birthday to You” as it lazily rolled down through the river of history was mostly unremarkable. Marilyn Monroe famously regaled then-President John F. Kennedy with the song in 1962. A 1987 documentary about Martin Luther King, Jr. used the song and was sent a bill for $5,000 for clearing the copyright, and from there, everything from The Colbert Report to Star Trek: The Next Generation either joked about the absurd copyright or had to forego singing it on television. (Star Trek couldn’t even get away with singing it in Klingon.)
Monroe, Clayton F. Summy Co. rebranded as Birch Tree, and Warner/Chappell Music acquired the company in 1988. While copyright claims on the song were relatively relaxed pre-1988, under Warner/Chappell, they exploded. Some estimate Warner profited $2 million every year from royalties.
But on Sept. 22, 2015, two years after documentarian Jennifer Nelson filed her original suit against Warner concerning the song’s copyright status, a Los Angeles judge ruled that Warner’s claim to the copyright was invalid. The evidence? A 1922 songbook containing the song, sans copyright notices. Those eight notes, which had brought millions of dollars of profit to Warner throughout decades of copyright enforcement, were now no longer the property of Warner, and several months later, a second trial began to trace the song’s history and decide whether or not it would become public domain.
The following February, in 2016, the song was declared royalty-free, and Warner settled the case for $14 million. It’s only a fraction of what the company made in its nearly three decades of ownership. But thanks to the David-and-Goliath lawsuits, we can now enjoy Star Trek episodes wherein “Happy Birthday to You” is sung in either Klingon or English. The song’s troubled, turbulent history, from kindergarten ditty to the most-sung tune in the English language, perfectly illustrate the lengths to which companies are willing to go to exploit for monetary gain even the most innocent elements of our culture.
For decades, the song put independent filmmakers and documentarians in a vice. How to communicate quickly and effectively that we’re witnessing a birthday party when your project must take place in a world where nobody sings the birthday song for fear of copyright infringement? Not everyone has $5,000 to spend on music.
The kangaroo court of copyright law will continue to be a thorn in the side of many independent artists for decades to come. The endless copyright strikes on YouTube aren’t going away, and laws surrounding when work enters the public domain will continue to be exploitative and excessive. (We’ll all be dead before you can safely and freely use Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” in a movie.) This cessation of lawsuits around the English language’s most iconic song might not seem like much, but these past few years have at least ended the grip a major company has had on one of the most famous songs of all time. So happy birthday to you, reader, royalty-free.
Tyler Obropta is a fourth year Cinema and Photo major and staff writer who’d rather hear the infamous birthday song in Klingon instead of English. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org