The summer months of June and July are very big birthday months for our family and friends. In fact, I almost go crazy trying to keep all the dates straight – who is how old and do I have the proper gift? There’s always a cake or fancy dessert of some kind in the celebration and usually a candle that the birthday person can blow out, signifying their wish will come true. Of course, just like in all families, we sing “Happy Birthday.”
Many might say my voice is not so good, but I still continue to sing and my family sometimes groans. Maybe I should cut down on the volume. Anyway, I always want them to know that I wish them well and many more years of happiness and good health. Sometimes we end with the words, “and many more.” But in countries like Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland, immediately after “Happy Birthday” has been sung, someone says, “Hip Hip,” and then everyone else says, “Hooray.” It is repeated three times. We would probably look on that as a little stuffy.
All these recent birthdays made me think about the “Happy Birthday” song and I decided to find out how it began.
In 1893, two sisters, Patty Hill (a kindergarten teacher) and Mildred Hill (a pianist and composer) introduced the song, “Good Morning to All,” to a kindergarten class in Kentucky. They were looking for a song that was easy for the children to sing. Later it was sung at birthday parties, changing the first words to Happy Birthday and using the same tune.
The song was finally written down and published in 1913, but not copyrighted until 1935. Then in 1988, Warner Chappell Music acquired the rights to the song for $25 million, estimating the value of the song at $5 million. Can you believe that? Warner Chappell claims the copyright doesn’t expire until 2030, but others claim it may be at the end of 2016.
The company continues to insist that no one can sing the “Happy Birthday” lyrics if used for profit (on television, radio, or anywhere open to the public or any group that is not mainly family and friends) without paying royalties.
Now interestingly, there is a lawsuit against Warner Chappell filed by a movie production company that paid $1,500 for the rights to the song to be used in a documentary which was being made about the song and its history. The production company wants their money back, saying they shouldn’t owe it and that the copyright should have expired by now. The lawsuit has been in the courts for over two years.
The cost for public use of this song can be as much as $700 for each occurrence. Can you imagine trying to police the use of this song? Keep in mind it doesn’t apply to those of us just wishing our friends and family well on their big day.
So now we know the song is used all over the world and originated more than 100 years ago. I know we will all keep singing “Happy Birthday.” For my part, I’ll try to sing more softly.
(Melanie Behrens – firstname.lastname@example.org)
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