Nobody owns Happy Birthday song, says judge

Lucrative notes: the original song for children that became the source of several fortunes

Until this week, the most-used song on the planet was earning Warner Music about £1.3m a year. Now a court challenge has been won to make the song free to use. Will this help music?

What’s happening

Everybody knows the song ‘Happy Birthday’. American composers have called it ‘far and away...the most popular song of the twentieth century’. However, until this week the song was officially ‘owned’ by the giant Warner Music company. Now a judge has ruled that it is no-one’s ‘property’.

Find out more

The Warner Music company owned the song and so was entitled to a fee whenever it was used in a film, play or on television. This is called copyright. It means that writers or composers - or owners - receive payment when their work is used.

Warner Music did not write the song but bought the rights to it and so became its owners. Experts agree that the score dates back to 1893. An American teacher called Patty Smith Hill began working on a set of children’s songs with her sister Mildred, a famous organist and composer, and released a book called ‘Song Stories for the Kindergarten’. Among the songs was one called ‘Good Morning to All’, with the tune for what is now known as ‘Happy Birthday’.

Some say…

The story has reignited a deep debate over whether people really ‘own’ songs. Why should anyone be allowed to own a tune that is more than a century old and a part of all our lives? It is as absurd as claiming ownership of the numbers one to ten, or the words ‘How do you do?’.

Others think…

But the people who write and compose songs must be fairly treated. There is genius in simplicity. ‘Happy Birthday’ is as much a song as Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’, a song which is rightly still earning money for him as composer. If it is distinctive and it has a clear creator, then that person deserves to profit from his or her creativity.

You Decide

  1. Should a song as common as ‘Happy Birthday’ be owned by someone?

Activities

  1. Try and learn the words to ‘Happy Birthday’ in a language other than English.

Some People Say...

“All art should be free”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Score
In music, a score is the written form of a piece of music which shows both the words (if there are any) and the tune, and how to play it.
Kindergarten
A nursery school, from the German words ‘Kinder’ meaning ‘children’ and ‘Garten’ meaning ‘garden’.
Distinctive
Identifiable or standing out as different from other things.
Profit
to benefit from, usually with money. Receiving more income than the cost.

Subjects

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