Do I have to pay to record Happy Birthday?

Why are companies so keen to own copyright in Happy Birthday?

By one estimate, the song is the highest-earning single song in history, with estimated earnings since its creation of US$50 million.

In 1988, Warner/Chappell Music purchased the company owning the copyright for US$25 million, with the value of “Happy Birthday” estimated at US$5 million. Based on the 1935 copyright registration, Warner claimed that the United States copyright will not expire until 2030.

But in 2013, Good Morning to You Productions, a company producing a documentary about “Good Morning to All”, sued Warner/Chappell for falsely claiming copyright to the song. In September 2015, a federal judge declared that the Warner/Chappell copyright claim was invalid, ruling that the copyright registration applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song, and not to its lyrics and melody. This meant that the copyright in “Happy Birthday” had expired in the US.

Who actually wrote Happy Birthday?

“Happy Birthday to You”, also known more simply as “Happy Birthday”, comes from the song “Good Morning to All” which has been attributed to two sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, although the claim that the sisters composed the tune is disputed.

Patty Hill was a kindergarten principal in Louisville, Kentucky and her sister Mildred was a pianist and composer. The sisters used “Good Morning to All” as a song that young children would find easy to sing.

The combination of melody and lyrics in “Happy Birthday to You” first appeared in print in 1912, and probably existed even earlier. None of the early appearances of the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics included credits or copyright notices. The Summy Company registered a copyright in 1935, crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R. R. Forman.

So do I have to pay to record Happy Birthday?

It depends. “Happy Birthday to You” is now free to use around the world, except in the European Union where the copyright of the song is set to expire at midnight on December 31, 2016 (i.e. 70 years after the death of the last remaining composer – Patty Hill died in 1946.)

Postscript: As that date has now passed, “Happy Birthday to You” is now free to use around the world!

What do you think?


“Ivan was extremely skillful in guiding us through the process of acquiring music rights for our digital programme. From start to finish he advised us promptly and clearly on the steps in the process to clear each of our chosen tracks and acquired the clearances we needed in the very tight timeline we had. I would thoroughly recommend his services.”

Niamh Dilworth, Senior Producer, Unicorn Theatre

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