Sometimes origin stories get so muddled that it takes over 100 years just for the proper tales to emerge. This story somehow involves one of humankind’s most ubiquitous songs and yet still is confusing. In 1893, Patty and Mildred, the sisters Hill, wrote “Good Morning to All” for Patty’s kindergarten class. As popular music did at the time, it grew organically for different occasions (“A Happy Good Year to All” didn’t stick) until becoming the melody to coronate someone’s birth: “Happy Birthday To You.”
It would take until 1935 until a publishing company bought the rights. Warner Music acquired the small publishing company in 1988 and began systematically attempting to retrieve royalties for the song. This means Girl Scouts, old folk’s homes and the general subset of humanity all had to hold their tongues when the cake came out. Every local Chi-Chi’s and Ruby Tuesday had to go their own way and actually hire people to concoct a birthday song for unhappy ten-year olds.
Documentarian Jennifer Nelson, who is currently working on a film about “Happy Birthday,” won a class-action settlement to the tune of $14 million on Monday from Warner Music. Nelson herself will receive $4 million, and she is hoping the rest will be used to pay back people who had to pay to sing “Happy Birthday” at one point. To be clear, since 1988, Warner Music has been earning almost $2 million a year. For “Happy Birthday.” Of course, this also means that “Happy Birthday” is free to use to your heart’s content. And even though we just got it back…maybe now is the time to suggest a new birthday song?
Who was the last person you sang “Happy Birthday” to? Comment below.