“Happy Birthday to You“, also known more simply as “Happy Birthday“, is a song that is traditionally sung to celebrate the anniversary of a person’s birth. According to the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records, “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language, followed by “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow“. The song’s base lyrics have been translated into at least 18 languages.
The melody of “Happy Birthday to You” comes from the song “Good Morning to All“, which was written and composed by American siblings Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill in 1893. Patty was a kindergarten principal in Louisville, Kentucky, developing various teaching methods at what is now the Little Loomhouse; Mildred was a pianist and composer. The sisters created “Good Morning to All” as a song that would be easy to be sung by young children.
“Good Morning to All”
- Good morning to you,
- Good morning to you,
- Good morning, dear children,
- Good morning to all.
(Lyrics by Patty Smith Hill.)
The combination of melody and lyrics in “Happy Birthday to You” first appeared in print in 1912, and probably existed even earlier. None of these early appearances included credits or copyright notices. The Summy Company registered for copyright in 1935, crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman. In 1990, Warner Chappell purchased the company owning the copyright for $15 million, with the value of “Happy Birthday” estimated at $5 million. Based on the 1935 copyright registration, Warner claims that the United States copyright will not expire until 2030, and that unauthorized public performances of the song are technically illegal unless royalties are paid to it. In one specific instance on February 2010, these royalties were said to amount to $700. In the European Union, the copyright of the song will expire on December 31, 2016. The actual American copyright status of “Happy Birthday to You” began to draw more attention with the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Act in Eldred v. Ashcroft in 2003, Associate JusticeStephen Breyer specifically mentioned “Happy Birthday to You” in his dissenting opinion. American law professor Robert Brauneis, who heavily researched the song, has expressed strong doubts that it is still under copyright.
It is often the tradition that at a birthday party, the song “Happy Birthday to You” is sung to the birthday person by the other guests gathered around. The birthday person is usually seated in front of a table where there is a birthday cake with candles that have just been lit. The number of candles is often the same as the age of the birthday person. After the song is sung (usually just once), sometimes party guests will add phrases like “And many happy returns!” or “And many more!” expressing the hope that the birthday person will enjoy a long life. The birthday person is asked to make a wish (“Make a wish!”)—which is done silently—and then blow out the candles. Traditionally, the blowing out of the candles is felt to signify that the wish will come true. Once the candles have been blown out, people often will applaud, after which the first piece of the cake may be served to the birthday person. Often, after the cake has been eaten, each guest gives a gift, usually wrapped in festive paper, to the birthday person. The birthday person will then open the gifts, revealing their contents to all. The opening of gifts usually concludes the ritual aspect of a birthday party, which then proceeds much like any other party, but with the birthday person being treated as the guest of honor.