This song was written by two sisters from Kentucky: Mildred Hill and Patty Hill. They both taught nursery school and/or kindergarten. Patty invented the "Patty Hill blocks" used in schools nationwide, and served on the faculty of the Columbia University Teachers College for thirty years. Mildred, who was the older sister, studied music and became an expert on African American spirituals. In 1893, while Mildred was teaching at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School where her sister served as principal, she came up with the melody to this song. Patty added some lyrics and it became a song called "Good Morning to All," which was a way for teachers to greet students.
Here are the original lyrics:
Good morning to you
Good morning to you
Good morning, dear children
Good morning to all
Later in 1893, the song was published in the songbook Song Stories For The Kindergarten, and other schools started singing it. After a while, it became more popular for kids to sing it to teachers, and the song became commonly known as "Good Morning To You," since the third line could be changed to fit the subject.
It's unclear who wrote the words "Happy Birthday To You," but the lyrics first appeared in a songbook in 1922 as the optional third verse of "Good Morning to You" (listed as "Good Morning and Birthday Song") with the lyrics to "Happy Birthday" as the optional third verse, and instructions on how to insert the birthday child's name.
Various movies and radio shows started using the song as a birthday greeting, and "Good Morning To You" morphed into "Happy Birthday To You." It was used in the 1931 Broadway musical The Band Wagon and was part of Western Union's first "singing telegram" in 1933. It was also used in the Irving Berlin musical As Thousands Cheer. The Hill sisters were not compensated for use of "Happy Birthday To You," so their other sister Jessica filed suit to prove that "Happy Birthday To You" was their song with different lyrics. The court agreed and gave the Hill sisters the copyright to "Happy Birthday To You" in 1934, which meant that anytime it was used in a movie, radio program, or other performance, the Mildred and Patty Hill were compensated. (In the case of Mildred, her estate was compensated, since she died in 1916.)
The Clayton F. Summy Company, working with Jessica Hill, published and copyrighted "Happy Birthday" in 1935. Under the laws in effect at the time, the Hills' copyright would have expired after one 28-year term and a renewal of similar length, falling into public domain by 1991. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 extended the term of copyright protection to 75 years from date of publication, and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another 20 years, bringing copyright protection to "Happy Birthday" until at least 2030. Challenges to the copyright itself (see below) nullified this copyright in 2015.
Warner Chappell, the largest music publishing company in the world, got the rights to this song when they bought what was The Clayton F. Summy Company in 1998 for a reported price of $25 million. They spun off the company as Summy-Birchard Music, which became a part of Time Warner.
The song brought in about $2 million in royalties every year, with the proceeds split between Summy-Birchard and the Hill Foundation. Both Hill sisters died unmarried and childless, so their share of the royalties presumably went to charity or to nephew Archibald Hill ever since Patty Hill passed away in 1946.
When this song was under copyright (1949-2015), you could sing it at a birthday party without paying royalties, but anytime it was performed in public in front of a large gathering of people (like at a concert) or broadcast, a performance license was required. This is normally issued in the US by three companies: ASCAP, BMI and SESAC - The Hill Foundation is a member of ASCAP.
Companies that are required by law to have performance licenses operate radio stations, TV stations, concert venues, and restaurants and other retail outlets over a certain size where music is played. A blanket deal with ASCAP means these venues could sing "Happy Birthday" as much as they'd like, but many outlets didn't have such a deal, which is where it got tricky.
Some TV networks, for instance, clear songs on an individual basis, so if a host decided to serenade an audience member with "Happy Birthday," the station was on the hook, and ASCAP would send them a bill for pretty much any amount they deemed reasonable. Broadcasters in these situations were under strict orders NOT to sing it. Many restaurants created their own birthday songs in large part to avoid legal trouble.
On September 22, 2015, a judge ruled that the copyright to "Happy Birthday to You" was invalid, putting the song in the public domain.
The lawsuit was filed in 2013 by Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the song. After researching the song, she decided that it should be free to the public, and she objected to the $1,500 payment Warner Music asked for its use in her film, prompting the legal action.
As evidence in the case, Nelson presented the 1922 songbook where the song's lyrics first appeared. Since the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 states that any work created before 1923 is public domain (keeping Mickey Mouse and other Disney copyrights valid), "Happy Birthday" would thus be free.
The case had an impact not just on those hoping to use the song gratis, but on those who had already paid royalties for its use, since those could possibly be recouped. In December 2105, a settlement was reached with Warner Music agreeing to pay $14 million to thousands of people and entities in a class action who had paid to license the song. Months later, the same law firm was employed in effort to bring the song "We Shall Overcome
" into the public domain.
It was rumored that Paul McCartney owned the rights to this song. McCartney bought the publishing rights to a lot of songs (including most of Buddy Holly's), but he does not own this one.
One of the most famous performances of this song was Marilyn Monroe's rendition to US President John F. Kennedy in May 1962 at Madison Square Garden. Monroe was accompanied on the piano by jazz pianist Hank Jones who recalled in a 2005 interview on National Public Radio: "She did 16 bars: eight bars of 'Happy Birthday to You' and eight bars of 'Thanks for the Memories. So in 16 bars, we rehearsed eight hours. She was very nervous and upset. She wasn't used to that kind of thing. And, I guess, who wouldn't be nervous singing 'Happy Birthday' to the president?"
In our interview with Tom Gabel of Against Me!
, he told us: "If I could have written any song in the world it would have been 'Happy Birthday.' It's the only song that groups of people annually sing specifically for someone specifically in an attempt to make them feel special. It's a completely unique song and it's ubiquitous." (Gabel would later identify as female and take the name Laura Jane Grace.)
This was named the highest-earning song of all time in the documentary The Richest Songs In The World
, which aired on BBC Four on December 28, 2012. Runner-up was Irving Berlin's "White Christmas
This was the first song to be performed in outer space. On March 8, 1969, the astronauts on Apollo IX sang it to celebrate the birthday of Christopher Kraft, who at that time was director of NASA space operations.
"Happy Birthday" gained a second identity in 2020 as the accompaniment to a hand-washing ritual in the global coronavirus pandemic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that to wash your hands effectively, you must scrub often with soap and water for 20 seconds. It takes about 10 seconds to sing "Happy Birthday," so if you sing the tune twice, that gives you the 20 seconds necessary to wash your hands properly and rid them of COVID-19.