History of the 'Happy Birthday to You' Song

family singing happy birthday to you song

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The song "Happy Birthday to You" has become a classic, sung at birthday parties around the world. But the song did not start out as an ode to the annual celebration of birthdays, and the song's writers didn't originally get credit.

The Guinness Book of World Records ranks "Happy Birthday to You" as the most recognizable song in English. It's been translated into at least two dozen languages. Here's the story behind the "Happy Birthday to You" song. 

Mildred and Patty Hill

The melody and lyrics of "Happy Birthday to You" were written by sisters Mildred J. Hill (1859-1916) and Patty Smith Hill (1868-1946). Patty was a schoolteacher who developed the Patty Hill blocks which were building blocks used as educational tools. She also was a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College and was one of the founders of the National Association for Nursery Education, which was later renamed the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

Mildred also was an educator who later became a composer, organist, and pianist. 


The melody was composed by Mildred and the lyrics were written by Patty, but it was originally for a classroom greeting song titled "Good Morning to All," intended to be a daily classroom greeting for small children.

The song "Good Morning to All" was part of the book "Song Stories for the Kindergarten" which the sisters co-wrote and published in 1893.

It is still unclear who changed the lyrics that turned it into a birthday song, but it was first published in 1924 in a book edited by Robert H. Coleman. The song became popular and in 1934, Jessica Hill, Mildred and Patty's sister, filed a lawsuit. She claimed the use of the "Good Morning to You" melody in "Happy Birthday to You" was unauthorized. In 1935, Jessica, who was working with publisher Clayton F. Summy Company, copyrighted and published "Happy Birthday to You."


In the 1930s, the Clayton F. Summy Company was bought by John F. Sengstack and renamed Birch Tree Ltd. In 1998, Birch Tree Ltd was in turn bought by Warner Chappell for $25 million in 1988. 

Warner Chappell tried to argue that the copyright for the song in the U.S. would not expire until 2030, making unauthorized performances of the song illegal. 

In 2013, Warner Chappell was sued for claiming false copyright on "Happy Birthday to You." A federal judge ruled in 2015 that Warner Chappell's claim to a copyright on the song was not valid. Its registration, the judge ruled, only covered a specific piano version, not the melody and lyrics. 

Warner Chappell settled the case for $14 million in 2016, with the court ruling that "Happy Birthday to You" was, in fact, in the public domain, and that performances of the song were not subject to royalties or otherwise restricted.