Happy Birthday

Album: Happy Birthday (1893)
Play Video


  • 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.
  • In a 1989 Time Magazine article, this was one of the three most popular songs in the English language, along with "Auld Lang Syne" and "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Jimmy - Bronxville, NY
  • "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.

Comments: 17

  • Javion Garcia from HomeI think they should get a certain amount of percent for whoever makes the song or sings it
  • George from Vancouver, CanadaThe sisters didn't write it so much as adapt it from the original folk standard, "Good Morning to You"(same basic tune, same repetition pattern)
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn March 16th 1974, the new Opryland Auditorium in Nashville was dedicated by U.S. President Richard Nixon...
    After the dedication he sat down at a piano and played "Happy Birthday," "My Wild Irish Rose," and "God Bless America"...
    And less than five months later on August 8th, 1974 he announced that he would resign from the presidency the following day.
  • Chomper from Northampton County, PaThis song was sang lots of times at birthday parties when me and my brothers and sister were little. During our elementary and high school days, the kids in school would come up with their own lyrics to the music; which would go : "Happy Birthday to you. You live in a zoo. You act like a monkey ; And you look like one, too." lol. A very childdish , but rather stupid way of singing the song.
  • Elizabeth from Anytown, IlEmily, i am so used to the same thing ...not that i know you or anything :D
  • Michael Scott from Punta Gorda, FlIt's interesting that first come first serve has been the way of life. I'm sure this song has been copyrighted and passed down through the generations.
    The larger the crowd, the more an expected royalty. My sister always privately sings this to me on my birthday and ads "and many more". Not to infringe on the copyright it perhaps is the most sung song ever written.
  • Emily from Around Chicago, IlThis song is copywrited??? I don't think it matters though, I doubt the owners would sue anybody for this.

    My mom used to sing "Good Morning To You" to me...I ate breakfast to it all the time.

    I was really surprised songfacts had this...but, whatever, it's a good song. Happy birthday to everyone out there who happens to read this on their birthday!!!
  • Annabelle from Eugene, OrYou know what I don't understand? I don't understand why this song is still copyrighted. I can't believe it! Why would a song like this still be copyrighted, when in fact it's over 100 years old? Songs like this that are over 100 years old, and even older, should at least be in the public domain. I mean, look at some of the classical symphonies that were written in the 1600's. You don't see copyright trademarks on those pieces of music nowadays, do you?
  • Lester from New York City, NyHappy Birthday to You is the B-side of A Very Merry Unbirthday to You, the song from Disney's Alice in Wonderland
  • Mike from Petersham, Mahello retards!!!
  • Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesThis would mean that royalties were paid to the Hill estate when Marilyn Monroe sang her sultry "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" for Jack Kennedy in May of '62. Marilyn herself paid $1000 to get into that event.
  • Patrick from Tallapoosa, GaThey don't have a right to your celebration. You don't have to get copyrighted permission to throw a party for someone's birthday, or to sing the song to tha person individually, or as a small group. You do have to have permission, however, if you're going to perform the song at a large concert, or any event where you made a profit for one reason or the other, and that song was part of the profit. It's like singing any other song. If you sing a Simon & Garfunkel song to your child as a lullabye, it's not copyright infringement. But, if you record the song on a CD and sell it, without their permission, it is. It's just a song that celebrates an event that occurs in everyone's life. Singing that song privately is just as safe as singing a Christmas carol privately, or like I mentioned before, singing a Simon & Garfunkel song privately.
  • Fremont from Concord, NhPaul McCartney may own a lot of songs, but he doesn't own any of the Beatles songs... Michael Jackson does.
  • Corrie from Calgary, Canadalol kinda funny seeing this song on this site. but it's sweet lol every's gotta love this song!
  • Tom from Boston, Mathe song makes me embarressed but it is happy and joyus.
  • Maureen Gallagher from Belfast, Irelandeveryone has a birthday and hopefully they are all happy. how rediculous that someone has the rights to someones birthday celebrations
  • Matt from Saugus, MaActually, Coleman only wrote the lyrics. The tune was written by a pair of kindergarten teachers in the late 1800s or early 1900s and was called "Good Morning To You". Their family still owns the rights to the tune.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Dave Edmunds

Dave EdmundsSongwriter Interviews

A renowned guitarist and rock revivalist, Dave took "I Hear You Knocking" to the top of the UK charts and was the first to record Elvis Costello's "Girls Talk."

Pam Tillis

Pam TillisSongwriter Interviews

The country sweetheart opines about the demands of touring and talks about writing songs with her famous father.

Song Cities

Song CitiesMusic Quiz

Nirvana, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen are among those who wrote songs with cities that show up in this quiz.

Pete Anderson

Pete AndersonSongwriter Interviews

Pete produced Dwight Yoakam, Michelle Shocked, Meat Puppets, and a very memorable track for Roy Orbison.

Thomas Dolby

Thomas DolbySongwriter Interviews

He wrote "She Blinded Me With Science" so he could direct a video about a home for deranged scientists.

Famous Singers' First Films

Famous Singers' First FilmsSong Writing

A look at the good (Diana Ross, Eminem), the bad (Madonna, Bob Dylan) and the peculiar (David Bowie, Michael Jackson) film debuts of superstar singers.