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Image Credit: Raymond B

According to a source as eminent as the Guinness Book of Records, it is the most famous English song. Translated into 19 languages, sung in over 143 films and hundreds of adverts, it is also, as we know, a tune which brings as much shame as it does happiness. What we do not know as much, is that this must-have song at children’s parties is also one of the most lucrative in history. Up until 2015, singing “Happy Birthday” in public could cost you dear, very dear. And according to law, you could have had to pay up for singing this out loud, for instance in a restaurant. Before this date, the Warner/Chappell Music label held the rights for the song which brought in some 2 million dollars per year. Some exploitations were billed at over 100,000 dollars. And there was no way around it. Neither “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder — too hard to sing for novices — nor the proposed alternative (and strangely melancholic) song by Monk Turner and Fascinoma managed to compete. Nothing can replace the six notes and four bars in people’s heads. After all what can be done against something so popular? Nothing, except to change the law. In 2013, Jennifer Nelson, independent film producer, exasperated for having to pay out 1,500 dollars to use the song in a documentary referred the case to justice so as to call into question the validity of Warner/Chappell’s copyright. To whom does “Happy Birthday” actually belong? A difficult question to which Los Angeles Federal Court would provide a response: to everyone. Made public in September 2015, the judge’s decision brought an end to the absurd exploitation of a popular rumour dating over a century.

Origins of a song

It was in the largest town of Kentucky, Louisville, that the four most crooned words on Earth originated. It was 1859, and the song emerged in the framework of a progressive educational program. It was a sort of Montessori education before the hour, where people sought to amongst children rather than tame them and where teachers and sisters Mildred J. Hill, 30 years old, and Patty Smith (!) Hill, 24 years old, composed a song which was easy for their pupils – an impulsive tune. Soon, a melody emerged: it went “Good Morning to All”. Satisfied with their song, the sisters registered the copyright of this song which would be easy to sing by one and all, with a greater degree of accuracy. And for a good reason: according to music expert Kembrew McLeod, it belonged to a tradition of folklore and oral songs and was close to “Happy Greetings to All” by a certain Horace Waters, written in 1858 and of which the title already put us on the oh so modern track of a celebration.

Modern? The culture of birthday parties has not, in fact, always been this way. Before 1802 and the invention of 53 candles on a cake by Goethe, the passing of years was not necessarily celebrated, and certainly not with cream, songs and gifts to boot. It was only fifty years after invention of the melody by the Hill sisters that birthdays as we know them emerged. And in their wake, the song changed words. Without the Hill sisters even realising. And without their consent. Without, therefore, Summy, the company with whom they had registered the copyright for the song, being able to claim the rights over this entirely new version of the song. No more so than its successors, companies Birch Tree and then Warner/Chappell. And it is thus that following this reasoning Los Angeles Federal Court ruled that “Happy Birthday to All” should fall in the public domain three years ago.

From Marilyn to the Apollo Mission

This free use was so clear since almost everyone had interpreted “Happy Birthday” in recent years. Marilyn Monroe for the birthday of John F. Kennedy in 1962, of course, but also the crew of Apollo on 8th March 1969, for their director of operations Christopher Kraft, a week late. Igor Stravinski, backed by a brass band in his “Greeting Preludes”, as well as characters from the Rocky Horror Picture Show during an alarming dinner. Lino Ventura in the Tontons Flingueurs, but also the Beatles, the Ramones, Aretha Franklin for Taylor Swift, Beyoncé in an unreal cloud of smoke and glitter, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Céline Dion and even One Direction.

This birthday mania accompanied by prohibition led to some senseless passages in pop works: in the sitcom entitled The Goldberg, for instance, Erica Goldberg had to write a tune for Hanukkah and did so over the music to “Happy Birthday” — which exasperated her music teacher who stopped her: “You can’t use this tune otherwise I’ll have to pay old women hundreds of thousands of dollars”. In another US series, Community, one of the characters only sang the last two words of the song “…to you”, before the other character confusedly asked him: “But why is it that we are only singing two words?” Anecdotes which show the measure of imagination that was needed for 30 years to overcome the prohibition to use the song free of charge. In The Game by David Fincher, there was an even more radical method: the character who is preparing to sing the song is killed.

Clever Simpsons

As is often the case, money issues led to ideas. For instance, the rather surprising versions of the song by the Minions, the Simpsons or Club Dorothée allowed the copyright rules to be overcome. Reinvent the classic or pay the high price, therefore. Or, just call the whole thing off. In 1990, a documentary about civil rights of Afro-Americans, Eyes on the Prize, would be prohibited from broadcast due to a scene where Martin Luther King is wished a Happy Birthday… Quite something when you realise the other life lived by Mildred Hill, the writer of the song: specialist in Afro-American music, and who notably wrote, under the pseudonym Johann Tonsor, articles on the – positive – impact of black culture on American music.

These articles, and notably that entitled “Negro Music” (dated 1892) also had an influence on the composition of the Symphony of the New World by Antonin Dvorák. Mildred, of course, knew nothing about this. In her lifetime she would never realise the contribution she had made to the world of music: at the time of her death, in Chicago in 1916, the song was still light years from becoming the universal song it is now. It was simply, or almost simply, a song for children.