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The Hunt for a New, Copyright-Free Happy Birthday Song

In the United States, "Happy Birthday to You"—one of the most popular songs in the world—is still under copyright. And it will be until 2030

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In the United States, “Happy Birthday to You”—one of the most popular songs in the world—is still under copyright. And it will be until 2030. While you’re free to sing the song in private, you need to pay to perform it in public.

But now WFMU and the Free Music Archive are hoping to rescue the world from this intellectual property trap. They put out a challenge: make a new, copyright-free birthday song. Here’s the winner:

The Free Music Archive explains the project a little more here:

The Free Music Archive wants to wish Creative Commons a Happy Birthday with a song. But there’s a problem. Although “Happy Birthday To You” is the most recognized song in the English language and its origins can be traced back to 1893, it remains under copyright protection in the United States until 2030. It can cost independent filmmakers $10,000 to clear the song for their films, and this is a major stumbling block hindering the creation of new works of art.

Part of the reason the song will be under copyright for so long is that the two school-teaching sisters who wrote the melody and the words didn’t both copyrighting it. The New York Times provides a little bit more history, writing:

In 1893 the sisters wrote a book called ”Song Stories for the Sunday School.” Within that book was a composition called ”Good Morning to All,” which had the ”Happy Birthday” melody. The lyrics went: ”Good morning to you, good morning to you, good morning dear children, good morning to all.” Sung in Many Languages

Only later did the sisters add the birthday words. It is now one of the three most popular songs in the English language, the Guinness Book of World Records says, along with ”Auld Lang Syne” and ”For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

It wasn’t until 1935 that the Clayton F. Summy Company copyrighted the song, crediting different authors. Later, the song was purchased as part of a deal cut by the Sengstack family when they bought Summy. These companies have been sticklers about the copyright, too. Here’s the Times again:

Enforcing the copyright of a song as popular as ”Happy Birthday” has led to some peculiar situations. By law, any public performance of the song for profit or mechanical reproduction triggers a copyright fee. Summy sued Postal Telegraph in the 1940′s when the song was used in singing telegrams. The suit was dropped when company lawyers were stymied by the argument that even though the song was used for profit, it was not sung in public.

The company also objected when Frederick’s of Hollywood advertised underwear that played ”Happy Birthday.”

Currently, the copyright’s in the hands of Warner Music Group, which, like its predecessors, continues to profit off it. So WFMU and The Free Music Archive are trying to help us all out by building a better, freer song. Try it out.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How to Properly Celebrate a Hobbit Birthday
Happy 100th Birthday, Julia Child!

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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