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The Absurdity of Copyright: “Happy Birthday to You”

“Urban legend” researcher Snopes.com explains the retardation that has led to the ubiquitous six-note ditty being protected until 2030!

    The Hills’ catchy little tune was unleashed upon the world in 1893, when it was published in the songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. (The composition of “Good Morning to All” is often erroneously reported as having occurred in 1859 by sources that confuse Mildred Hill’s birth date with the year she created the melody.) After the song proved more popular as a serenade for students to sing to their teachers (rather than vice-versa), it evolved into a version with the word “teacher” replacing “children” and a final line matching the first two, and “Good Morning to All” became more popularly known as “Good Morning to You.” (Ironically, in light of the copyright battles to come, “Good Morning to All” bore more than a passing resemblance to the songs “Happy Greetings to All” and “Good Night to You All,” both published in 1858.)

    Here the trail becomes murky — nobody really knows who wrote the words to “Happy Birthday to You” and put them to the Hills’ melody, or when it happened. The “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics first appeared in a songbook edited by one Robert H. Coleman in March of 1924, where they were published as a second stanza to “Good Morning to You”; with the advent of radio and sound films, “Happy Birthday” was widely popularized as a birthday celebration song, and its lyrics supplanted the originals. By the mid-1930s, the revamped ditty had appeared in the Broadway musical The Band Wagon (1931) and had been used for Western Union’s first “singing telegram” (1933), and when Irving Berlin’s musical As Thousands Cheer made yet another uncredited and uncompensated use of the “Good Morning to All” melody, Jessica Hill, a third Hill sister who administered the copyright to “Good Morning to All” on behalf of her sisters, sprang into action and filed suit. By demonstrating the undeniable similiarities between “Good Morning to All” and “Happy Birthday to You” in court, Jessica was able to secure the copyright of “Happy Birthday to You” for her sisters in 1934 (too late, unfortunately, to benefit Mildred, who had died in 1916).

    The Chicago-based music publisher 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, so under current law the copyright protection of “Happy Birthday” will remain intact until at least 2030.

If this makes sense to you, maybe you can get a job with the RIAA.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014.Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected], Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted.Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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