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Who Owns the Song Happy Birthday?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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The song "Happy Birthday", with its ill-fitting lyrics and numbingly simple tune, is actually owned by a subsidiary of the media conglomeration known as AOL Time Warner. How a song as common as this ended up in the hands of a multi-national media group is nearly as interesting as the origins of the song itself.

The tune of the song is believed to have been written by a woman from Kentucky named Mildred J. Hill sometime around 1893. Her sister, Patty Smith Hill, had already composed a simple greeting song called "Good Morning to You" for her students. Mildred and Patty Hill were both influential in the world of early childhood education, and their greeting song was eventually published in a collection of kindergarten songs. At that time, however, there was no lyrics which actually contained the words "Happy Birthday".

By the mid-1920s, several songbooks contained "Happy Birthday" as a second verse of the Hill sister's "Good Morning to You". Several motion pictures used the song without crediting the songwriters, which prompted a third sister named Jessica Hill to demand legal compensation. Jessica Hill also established her sisters as the legal copyright owners of the work.

This is where ownership rights of "Happy Birthday" become a movable feast. Jessica Hill worked with the Clayton F. Summy musical publishing company to first publish the song as a copyrighted work in 1935, crediting the lyrics to Preston Ware Orem, an employee of Summy. Originally, the copyright owned by the Hill sisters would have lasted for two consecutive 28 year terms. However, modern changes to copyright law have added several more decades of protection, making the work privately-owned until at least the year 2030.

The chain of ownership for "Happy Birthday" begins with Jessica Hill and the Clayton F. Summy Company. A New York-based businessman acquired the company and renamed it Birch Tree Ltd. A subsidiary of Warner Communications, Warner Chappell, eventually bought Birch Tree Ltd. in the late 1990s, renaming it Summy-Birchard Music. Time-Warner merged with Internet giant AOL to form Time Warner AOL.

Although any commercial production which uses this song must pay royalties or obtain a license from ASCAP or the Harry Fox agency, individuals can still sing it in the privacy of their own homes. Technically, bars and restaurants without ASCAP licenses cannot allow employees to perform "Happy Birthday" for customers, which is why many of these places create their own birthday songs as substitutes.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon260420 — On Apr 11, 2012

Who owns the copyright for "Black Satin," composed and performed by Miles Davis?

By klorine — On Aug 15, 2010

@Perforations - Actually, there are plenty of ways to find music and other recorded sounds that aren't owned by anyone. Many filmmakers that are working under a limited budget will utilize uncopyrighted musical services that allow the cheap and often free usage of professionally recorded music. Often, the musicians that help compose these songs will do the recording sessions for a flat fee, and then companies will publish the songs under a free usage agreement.

By Perforations — On Aug 15, 2010

Wow, I can't believe "Happy Birthday" is owned by something. It seems to me that this song is too universal and too ingrained into our culture to be the property of any one entity. But I suppose that's how it is with music publishing; every sound ever recorded is owned by someone. It is interesting to know why many restaurants have a different birthday song. I always wondered why they didn't just stick to the song everyone knows and can sing along with. I should've guessed it was to avoid paying royalties.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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