Happy Birthday

Yesterday was my 72nd birthday — 72 is an excellent number, 23 ∙ 32 — and good wishes (including felicitations in Swedish, Italian, and Hebrew) flooded my Facebook page and my mailbox. Among these was a setting of “Happy Birthday to You” by violinist Rachel Barton Pine, a wonderfully wild performance. Which led me to reflect on the history of this song and its association with the Linguistic Society of America.

(Thanks to Betsy Herrington for the link to the video.)

About Pine, from Wikipedia:

Rachel Barton Pine (born Rachel Elizabeth Barton, October 11, 1974) is a violinist from Chicago. Considered a child prodigy at the violin, she started playing at the age of 3 and a half. She performed at many renowned venues as a child and teenager. Currently she tours worldwide as a soloist with prestigious orchestras, plays in a baroque chamber music group and a heavy metal band, and has an active recording career. She is married to Greg Pine, a health care consulting firm CEO and former minor league baseball pitcher.

And about “Happy Birthday”, also from Wikipedia, with a long account of its copyright history:

The origins of “Happy Birthday To You” date back to the mid-nineteenth century, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, introduced the song “Good Morning to All” to Patty’s kindergarten class in Kentucky. In 1893, they published the tune in their songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. However, many believe that the Hill sisters most likely copied the tune and lyrical idea from other popular and substantially similar nineteenth-century songs that predated theirs, including Horace Waters’ “Happy Greetings to All”, “Good Night to You All” also from 1858, “A Happy New Year to All” from 1875, and “A Happy Greeting to All”, published 1885.

The Hill Sisters’ students enjoyed their teachers’ version of “Good Morning To All” so much that they began spontaneously singing it at birthday parties, changing the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”. Children’s Praise and Worship, edited by Andrew Byers, Bessie L. Byrum and Anna E. Koglin, published the song in 1918. In 1924, Robert Coleman included “Good Morning to All” in a songbook with the birthday lyrics as a second verse. Coleman also published “Happy Birthday” in The American Hymnal in 1933.

In 1935, “Happy Birthday to You” was copyrighted as a work for hire by Preston Ware Orem for the Summy Company, the publisher of “Good Morning to All”. A new company, Birch Tree Group Limited, was formed to protect and enforce the song’s copyright. In 1998, the rights to “Happy Birthday to You” and its assets were sold to The Time-Warner Corporation. In March 2004, Warner Music Group was sold to a group of investors led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. The company continues to insist that one cannot sing the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics for profit without paying royalties: in 2008, Warner collected about $5000 per day ($2 million per year) in royalties for the song. This includes use in film, television, radio, anywhere open to the public, or even among a group where a substantial number of those in attendance are not family or friends of whoever is performing the song. For this reason, most restaurants or other public party venues will not allow their employees to perform the song in public, instead opting for other original songs or cheers in honor of the birthday celebrant.

Except for the splitting of the first note in the melody “Good Morning to All” to accommodate the two syllables in the word “happy”, “Happy Birthday to You” and “Good Morning to All” are melodically identical. Precedent (regarding works derived from public domain material, and cases comparing two similar musical works) seems to suggest that the melody used in “Happy Birthday to You” would not merit additional copyright status for one split note. Whether or not changing the words “good morning” to “happy birthday” should be covered by copyright is a different matter. The words “good morning” were replaced with “happy birthday” by others, not the authors of “Good Morning to All”. Regardless of the fact that “Happy Birthday to You” infringed upon “Good Morning to All”, there is one theory that because the “Happy Birthday to You” variation was not written by the Hills, and it was published without notice of copyright under the Copyright Act of 1909, the 1935 registration is invalid.

Professor Robert Brauneis cited problems with the song’s authorship and the notice and renewal of the copyright, and concluded “It is almost certainly no longer under copyright.” Many question the validity of the current copyright, as the melody of the song was most likely borrowed from other popular songs of the time, and the lyrics were improvised by a group of five- and six-year-old children who never received any compensation.

In the EU and some other countries, copyright lasts for the life of the author(s) plus 70 years; since Patty Hill died in 1946 the copyright in these countries will expire following December 31, 2016, if it is presumed that its copyright is valid. However, in the United States, the song will not pass in to the public domain until 2030 based upon the law as it stands.

A reasonable person could view this history as demonstrating the deep imperfections of current American copyright law (as Justice Stephen Breyer, specifically mentioning “Happy Birthday to You”, did in dissenting from a Supreme Court opinion upholding the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act).

And now the LSA. Here I’ll quote Geoff Pullum on the matter, in a 12/7/06 Language Log posting:

Happy birthday, Noam. (Noam Chomsky, unquestionably the most famous member of the linguistics profession, turned 78 today.)

And by the way, here is a very little-known fact about wishing people a happy birthday. The song “Happy Birthday To You” was written in 1893 by two sisters, Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill, who were schoolteachers in Louisville, Kentucky. They died unmarried and childless, but left behind a foundation, the Hill Foundation, which had a share of the royalties. The song is still earning two million dollars of royalties a year, for a company that bought the rights; see this page for some history. After Patty Hill passed away in 1946, some of the Hill Foundation’s money went to their nephew Archibald A. Hill. And he was a distinguished linguist, formerly of the University of Texas. When he died, he left some money to the Linguistic Society of America. Thus some of the money earned by “Happy Birthday” ended up making the LSA significantly more prosperous. I have been told that it was primarily the Hill bequest that made it possible for the LSA to purchase its present office suite in Washington, DC. Thanks from all linguists, Arch. And thanks to Mildred and Patty as well.

Though I find “Happy Birthday to You” an annoying song, I greatly enjoy what Rachel Barton Pine has done with it and appreciate what the song has done for the LSA.

4 Responses to “Happy Birthday”

  1. Robert Says:

    I wish the Wikipedia article had included a helpful reminder that the song begins on its lowest note, and that people starting it should not pick some comfortable mid-range pitch as a starting note.

    I note that 72 is, in fact, the lowest integer that can be factored as a³b², and that very few people ever reach a second such age (108 being the next one).

    Oh, and a (belated) very happy birthday to you, Arnold!

  2. Stan Says:

    Breithlá sona duit!

  3. Joseph F Foster Says:

    Well, let the Irish be the only Celts to wish you a Happy Birthday we cannot. So…..

    Dydd pen blwydd hapus iti, a Arnold.

    Gwell hwyr na hwyrach!
    beter late than later
    ‘better late than never’

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