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Patty Hill was a kindergarten principal in Louisville, Kentucky, developing various teaching methods at what is now the Little Loomhouse; her sister Mildred was a pianist and composer. The sisters used ,,Good Morning to All" as a song that young children would find easy to sing. The combination of melody and lyrics in ,,Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print in 1912, and probably existed even earlier.
None of the early appearances of the ,,Happy Birthday to You" lyrics included credits or copyright notices. The Summy Company registered a copyright in 1935, crediting authors Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R. R. Forman. In 1988, Warner/Chappell Music purchased the company owning the copyright for US$25 million, with the value of ,,Happy Birthday" estimated at US$5 million. Based on the 1935 copyright registration, Warner claimed that the United States copyright will not expire until 2030, and that unauthorized public performances of the song are illegal unless royalties are paid to Warner. In one specific instance in February 2010, these royalties were said to amount to US$700. By one estimate, the song is the highest-earning single song in history, with estimated earnings since its creation of US$50 million. In the European Union, the copyright of the song was set to expire no later than December 31, 2016.
The American copyright status of ,,Happy Birthday to You" began to draw more attention with the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Act in Eldred v. Ashcroft in 2003, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer specifically mentioned ,,Happy Birthday to You" in his dissenting opinion. American law professor Robert Brauneis, who extensively researched the song, concluded in 2010 that ,,It is almost certainly no longer under copyright." In 2013, based in large part on Brauneis's research, Good Morning to You Productions, a company producing a documentary about ,,Good Morning to All", sued Warner/Chappell for falsely claiming copyright to the song. In September 2015, a federal judge declared that the Warner/Chappell copyright claim was invalid, ruling that the copyright registration applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song, and not to its lyrics and melody. In February 2016 Warner/Chappell settled for US $14 million, paving the way for the song to become public domain.
It is traditional, among English-speakers, that at a birthday party, the song ,,Happy Birthday to You" be sung to the birthday person by the other guests celebrating the birthday. More specifically, the birthday person is traditionally presented with a birthday cake with lit candles, with the number of candles sometimes corresponding to the age of the person. After the song is sung (usually just once), party guests sometimes add wishes like "and many more!" expressing the hope that the birthday person will enjoy a long life. The birthday person may be asked to make a wish (,,Make a wish!")—which he or she does silently—and then is supposed to blow out the candles. Traditionally, blowing out of the candles is believed (or is considered a lighthearted superstition) to ensure that the wish will come true. Once the candles have been blown out, people may applaud, after which the cake may be served, often with the first piece being served to the person whose birthday it is.
In Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Ireland, immediately after "Happy Birthday" has been sung, it is traditional for one of the guests to enthusiastically lead with ,,Hip hip..." and then for all of the other guests to join in and say "... hooray!" This is normally repeated three times. In Canada, especially at young children's birthdays, immediately after ,,Happy Birthday" has been sung, the singers segue into ,,How old are you now? How old are you now? How old are you now-ow, how old are you now?" and then count up: "Are you one? Are you two? Are you..." until they reach the right age, at which the celebrant says "yes", and everybody else, who presumably know the right number, all cheer.
The origins of ,,Happy Birthday to You" date back to at least the late 19th century, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, introduced the song "Good Morning to All" to Patty's kindergarten class in Kentucky. Years later, in 1893, they published the tune in their songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. Kembrew McLeod stated that the Hill sisters likely copied the tune and lyrical idea from other popular and similar nineteenth-century songs that predated theirs, including Horace Waters' ,,Happy Greetings to All", "Good Night to You All" also from 1858, ,,A Happy New Year to All" from 1875, and "A Happy Greeting to All", published 1885. However, Brauneis disputes this, noting that these earlier songs had quite different melodies.
It is likely that teachers and students spontaneously adapted the published version of ,,Good Morning to All" to celebrate birthdays in the classroom, changing the lyrics to ,,Happy Birthday" in the process. However, the complete text of ,,Happy Birthday to You" first appeared in print as the final four lines of Edith Goodyear Alger's poem ,,Roy's Birthday", published in her book A Primer of Work and Play, copyrighted by D. C. Heath in 1901, with no reference to the words being sung. The first book including ,,Happy Birthday" lyrics set to the tune of "Good Morning to All" that bears a date of publication is from 1911 in The Elementary Worker and His Work, but earlier references exist to a song called ,,Happy Birthday to You" including an article from 1901 in the Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal. Children's Praise and Worship, edited by Andrew Byers, Bessie L. Byrum and Anna E. Koglin, published the song in 1918. In 1924, Robert Coleman included ,,Good Morning to All" in a songbook with the birthday lyrics as a second verse. Coleman also published ,,Happy Birthday" in The American Hymnal in 1933.
In 1935, several specific piano arrangements and an unused second verse of ,,Happy Birthday to You" were copyrighted as a work for hire crediting Preston Ware Orem for the piano arrangements and Mrs. R. R. Forman for the lyrics by the Summy Company, the publisher of ,,Good Morning to All". This served as the legal basis for claiming that Summy Company legally registered the copyright for the song, as well as the later renewal of these copyrights. A later 2015 lawsuit would find this claim baseless. That specific new lyrics that also included the full text of ,,Happy Birthday to You", was a copyright on the derivative work. A 1957 acquisition of C.C. Birchard & Company saw Summy Company becoming the Summy-Birchard Company. A later corporate restructuring in the 1970s saw Summy-Birchard becoming a division of a new company: Birch Tree Group Limited.
Warner/Chappell Music acquired Birch Tree Group Limited in 1988 for US$25 million. The company continued to insist that one cannot sing the ,,Happy Birthday to You" lyrics for profit without paying royalties: in 2008, Warner collected about US$5,000 per day (US$2 million per year) in royalties for the song. Warner/Chappell claimed copyright for every use in film, television, radio, anywhere open to the public, and for any group where a substantial number of those in attendance are not family or friends of whoever is performing the song. Professor Robert Brauneis cited problems with the song's authorship and the notice and renewal of the copyright, and concluded: ,,It is almost certainly no longer under copyright."