A birthday that involves copyright infringement is an...Unhappy Birthday
Did you know Happy Birthday is copyrighted and the copyright is currently owned and actively enforced by Time Warner?
Did you know that if you sing a copyrighted song:
...at a place open to the public
...or among a substantial number of people who are not family or friends
You are involved in a public performance of that work?
Did you know an unauthorized public performances is copyright infringement??
The melody for Happy Birthday was first penned by two sisters from Kentucky involved in teaching and education: Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill. The song was called Good Morning to All but bore the recognizable melody. The tune was first published in 1893 in the book Song Stories for the Kindergarten. The tune, being older, is in the public domain. You should be alright humming.
While it is not entirely clear who first wrote down the words for Happy Birthday, it showed up in a few places before Jessica Hill (another Hill sister) was able to demonstrate undeniable similarities between Good Morning to All and Happy Birthday and to secure the copyright of Happy Birthday To You.
Working with the Clayton F. Summy Publishing Company, Jessica Hill published and copyrighted "Happy Birthday" in 1935. While the copyright should have expired in 1991, copyright has been extended repeatedly over the last quarter of the twentieth century and Happy Birthday is not due to expire until at least 2030.
The Clayton F. Summy Company is no more but, through a chain of purchase, the copyright lies securely in the hands of Time Warner. Happy Birthday's copyright is enforced by ASCAP and the little ditty brings in more than $2 million USD in annual royalties.
For more information on the history of the tune, lyrics, and copyright status check out these resources:
There area number of good resources for information on happy birthday on the web. This include:
According to (the United States copyright law in Title 17 §106, authors of works have the exclusive right, among many other things, "to perform the copyrighted work publicly." In Title 17 §101, the law defines publicly performing a work as to "to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.
Basically, this means that if you sing happy birthday to to your sister at home, you're probably alright. But if you do it in an restaurant, and if the restaurant hasn't paid up to Warner or to ASCAP, you may very well be engaging in copyright infringement.
The best way to stop infringement is to tell the authorities. Licenses for Happy Birthday are controlled by ASCAP.
If you have seen someone signing happy birthday in a restaurant, a park, or at a school, you should tell ASCAP. If you were the offender, you should apologize and offer to pay whatever is due — a nickle, a quarter, a dollar. There is an overwhelming amount copyright infringement pertaining to Happy Birthday. Lets set the balance right and overwhelm ASCAP with reports.
There are many ways to get in contact with ASCAP:
ASCAP - New York
One Lincoln Plaza
New York, NY 10023
It would also be a good idea to keep Warner Brothers' in the loop. Here's their information:
Time Warner Inc.
One Time Warner Center
New York, NY 10019-8016
If you're going send a message, here's a sample message although you'll want to modify yours to include information to include correct details on the infringement:
Dear ASCAP, The copyrighted status of "Happy Birthday To You" and and the law related to public performances of copyrighted works have recently been brought to my attention. I am very concerned by the disregard for the law shown by the rampant infringement relating to this "Happy Birthday To You." It is with this in mind that I wish to bring your attention an unauthorized performance: -->> WHEN (e.g., December 10, 2004) -->> WHERE (e.g., at the Vol De Nuit at 148 West 4th Street in New York -->> WHO (e.g., a group of patrons and the barstaff) I hope that you are able to quickly follow through on this and to enforce your copyright and extract the necessary the offenders. It is because of your lax and selective enforcement of the copyright in this work that most people don't even realize that the song is copyrighted. You might see very different behavior from people if the knew. In the event that you choose to continue selective enforcement of "Happy Birthday To You", for whatever reason, please considering lobbying congress to change the laws to reflect the way that most people actually interact with copyright works such as this. Regards, -->> YOUR NAME -->> YOUR ADDRESS
Unhappy Birthday is a grassroots project run by citizens who are outraged by rampant copyright infringement in today's society — particularly in relation to the song Happy Birthday.
You can support us in a number of ways including by buying overpriced tat in the official Unhappy Birthday store.
Get in contact with our leadership by emailing our copyrighteous spokesman, Benjamin Mako Hill, at firstname.lastname@example.org