Once upon a time (in 1893), a pair of sisters wrote a simple song for their nursery school and kindergarten students. Mildred J. Hill wrote a simple tune, and Patty Smith Hill wrote some equal simple, repetitive words:
Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.
The two sang the catchy song with their young students, but they also published it in a songbook for children.
The song caught on. (That's the thing about catchy songs, isn't it? They catch on!)
In many classes, the young students sang the song to the teacher, so the words were changed a little – “good morning to all” became another repetition of “good morning to you,” and “dear teacher” was sung in place of “dear children.”
And somebody, somewhere, changed the song again to be a birthday song. Perhaps you have heard it somewhere?
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday dear so-and-so [insert name here],
Happy birthday to you.
Well, this latest version really caught on! It is by far the most well-known song in the English-speaking world—maybe the entire world!—and it's been used in millions of music boxes, watches, musical greeting cards, and other for-profit products. It's been sung on TV and on Broadway and in movies, in space and underwater living spaces, in homes and schools, businesses and hospitals.
(By the way, many people think that students who sang the Good Morning song spontaneously changed the lyrics at birthday parties. Which would mean that the most widely known song in the world was “written” by a bunch of five- and six-year-old kids whose names we do not know!)
Okay, here's the weird part...this super-simple, almost ubiquitous (heard everywhere) song—this song that was written in the 1800s, maybe by a bunch of kids—is still protected by copyright!
My sources are unclear about who filed copyright on “Happy Birthday to You,” when, on whose behalf. Some sources say that another Hill sister sued and received copyright protection for Patty and Mildred Hill, and that the Hill Foundation collects royalties even to this day, but another source says that the publisher of the Hill's original “Good Morning” song filed for copyright on the birthday version.
Whatever the case, it seems that some of the profit-making enterprises that use the popular birthday song do pay royalties—adding up to perhaps two million dollars worth of royalties per year! It's totally fine to sing the song in private, with small groups at birthday parties, for example, but it is technically a violation to sing it in profit-making venues with a lot of people. This is why a lot of restaurants use original songs or other birthday songs—they want to avoid any copyright lawsuits! Many movies and television shows show people singing just a few notes (apparently this is “fair use” and doesn't cost anything), but those who show people singing the entire song have to pay $10,000 for the privilege! Yikes!
By the way, copyright laws differ from nation to nation. The song will become “public domain” (free for anyone to use, even for-profit or large groups) in Europe in 2016, and it will move to public domain status in the U.S. in 2030. And, here's one more fact to confuse you: some lawyers think that the song is already in public domain, right now, because the actual “authors” of the song (who, remember, might be a bunch of kids) weren't the ones who filed for copyright.
Also on this date: