Sing 'Happy Birthday' and It'll Cost You

Turns out the popular song is under copyright; performers are supposed to pay.

ByABC News
July 20, 2008, 10:17 PM

July 21, 2008— -- The Guinness Book of Records calls it the most popular song in the English language. It has been sung to popes and presidents, and incorporated into nearly 150 movies. It was featured in the world's first singing telegram. And during the Apollo 9 mission, it became the first song performed in outer space

Everyone knows the words to "Happy Birthday to You." What few people know is that the song is owned by a private company, and that it is copyrighted.

Use it for any commercial purpose, and you are supposed to pay up, says George Washington University School of Law professor Robert Brauneis.

"If you want to sing it at your home at a birthday party you don't have to pay anything, because that is a private performance," he said. "But if you want to use it in a television show, a movie, or a television commercial, you'll pay anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000 for those rights."

Turns out this humble little ditty is a cash juggernaut, generating approximately $2 million in royalties every year, Brauneis said.

After a series of purchases and acquisitions, the song is now owned by Warner Music Group, through its publishing arm, Warner/Chappell. It collects royalties for everything from happy birthday ring-tones to e-cards that play "Happy Birthday to You."

The Girl Scouts once were warned they would have to pay a fee if campers sang it. Even restaurants are supposed to pay, which is why some chains have their waiters sing alternative birthday songs that require no rights payments.

But Brauneis has just written the definitive history of the song, and he concluded that no one should be paying anything.

The story begins with sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, kindergarten teachers in Louisville, Ky., who wrote "Good Morning to All" in 1893.

The same melody, with new lyrics, was copyrighted in 1935 as the "Happy Birthday" song known worldwide today. But there is a problem.

"There is no evidence that these two sisters wrote those particular words," Brauneis said. Who wrote the lyrics "is a mystery," he said, adding it even is possible that children in the Hill sisters' school might be responsible.