The most recognized song in the English language, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, is Happy Birthday To You. We all have grown up singing it and hearing it sung near a candlelit cake, perhaps for as long as we can remember. But did you know that till 2015, for over a quarter century, if you sang Happy Birthday To You in any professional milieu, you had to pay a royalty to Warner Music? For instance if you played this song or sang it in a restaurant or club, office environment or garden, on a stage or in a taxi, you had to pay for doing so. It was a strange claim of shaky merits, and so was finally struck down by the courts, though not before Warner had collected royalties of about 2 million dollars each year.
Thus, in September 2015, the song became finally free, and almost in the public domain, which means that now you have to pay nothing for singing or playing it, no matter where you do so. But be aware; it’s not totally in the public domain, it’s almost so. That’s because while the courts have ruled that Warner Music has no copyrights over this song, the law is not sure if there are any other claimants of this copyright. In the unlikely event someone does have a copyright on this song, we’ll have to start paying the copyright owners for the privilege of using it. Such songs, which intellectual-property lawyers consider may have a copyright, but whose owner is unknown, are in legal parlance called Orphan Songs.
That does shake us up a bit, because singing this song has been an article of faith for us, almost like the air we breathe.
The story behind Happy Birthday To You
In the last decade of the 19th century, two sisters named Mildred and Patty Hill from Kentucky in USA created the tune of this song. They were kindergarten teachers and the words they wrote for their students were, “Good morning to you, Good morning to you, Good morning dear children, Good morning to all”. This they sang in class every day. After about two decades, someone used the words “Happy birthday to you”, substituting for “Good morning to you”. It is these words in the Hill sisters’ composition that began appearing on the new mediums of radio and cinema, two more decades later. In 1934, a third sister, Jessica Hill was able to obtain a copyright to the Happy Birthday song, based as it was on her sisters’ original composition, and similarity with their lyrics. This copyright was good till 1991 but was later extended till 2030. Meantime, the copyright was sold to successive buyers, until Warner Music purchased it in 1988, till the courts struck it down a couple of years ago. Interestingly, it has been okay to hum or play the tune itself, since the royalties on that part expired decades ago. The copyright had to do with the words themselves, when repeatedly sung in that tune. That is ironic, because the original copyright—which changed ownership—had essentially to do with the tune, not really with the words.
Hindi cinema has used the song too, without ever paying for the absurd royalties. It is another story that our films have rarely even credited the people whose tunes we have copied, forget about any question of paying them royalties. Do recall these songs, all having to do with birthday celebrations, even if not always using the words Happy Birthday To You:
- Meri laadli ri meri laadli bani hai taaron ki tu raani (Nargis to her daughter in Andaz, 1949)
- Tu jeeye hazaaron saal gori (friends sing to Madhubala on her birthday in Ek Saal, 1957)
- Main kyoon na naachoon aaj kaho ji (Vyjayanthimala sings at B Saroja Devi’s birthday in Paigham, 1959)
- Tum jeeyo hazaaron saal, saal ke din hon pachaas hazaar (Sulochana Latkar and friends sing to Shashikala on her birthday in Sujata, 1959)
- Juhi ki kali meri laadli (Meena Kumari to child artist Kutty Padmini in Dil Ek Mandir, 1963)
- Tumhen aur kya doon main dil ke sivaaye (Saira Banu sings for Rajendra Kumar on his birthday, never mind that it is also Dharmendra’s birthday in Aayi Milan Ki Bela, 1964)
- Hum bhi agar bachche hote (Johnny Walker, Saira Banu and Joy Mukherji sing to child artist Raju, in Door Ki Awaaz, 1964)
- Janam din aaya, mamta ki jyot jaage (Meena Kumari to unknown child artist in Bahaaron Ki Manzil, 1968)
- O nanhe se farishte tujhse ye kaisa naata (Sanjay Khan to child artist Bobby in Ek Phool Do Maali, 1969)
- Mere mehboob tere dum se hai duniya mein bahaar (Sunil Dutt to Asha Parekh on her birthday in Bhai Bhai, 1970)
- O mama dear mama, happy birthday to you (sisters Padmini Kolhapure and Aarti Chopra sing to their mother Nutan in Saajan Bina Suhagan, 1978)
- Zor se bajao zara band baaja (Jackie Shroff and Deven Varma to Nutan in Paisa Ye Paisa, 1985)
- Sau saal tu jeeti rahe (Jeetendra, Hema Malini, Amrita Singh to unknown child artist in Mulzim, 1988)
- Happy birthday to you O Mr Pedro (Jackie Shroff, Vivek Mushran and Pooja Bhatt sing for unknown actor in Prem Deewane, 1992)
- Teri hasi mein phool ki khushbu (Avinash Wadhwan and Bharat to unknown child in Wife Hai To Life Hai, 2004)
Not all songs rendered on birthdays are happy ones. Situations have been written where songs on birthdays become anything but birthday celebrations. This has happened in Do Badan (1966), where Manoj Kumar, insulted by Asha Parekh’s father on her birthday, sings Bhari duniya mein aakhir dil ko samjhaane kahaan jaayen. In Do Raaste (1969), we find Rajesh Khanna in a bind because family reasons prevent him from announcing his love for Mumtaz at her birthday. Instead he renders a sad song: Khizaan ke phool pe aati kabhi bahaar naheen. In Naya Zamana (1971), Aruna Irani is poor, but accused by Indrani Mukherji of being a thief at her daughter’s birthday, bursts out into Sau ilzaam lagaaye…choron ko saare nazar aate hain chor.
Perhaps the most high-profile use of the Happy Birthday song was by Marilyn Monroe in Madison Square Gardens in New York, in May 1962. The song’s lyrics were tweaked for the 45th birthday of US President John Kennedy. In this huge televised event, she went with oomph “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday Mr President, happy birthday to you!” We don’t know if the producer paid any royalties for such a high-profile use of this song, but do know that this was the last big public appearance for the actress, and many people do think she seemed drugged on stage. It’s a pity she died weeks after this show. As for the man she was toasting that night, he died too, just next year. Both passed away too early to be celebrated enough times by this most popular of all songs.
As for us, it’s happy times as before. Let’s sing to celebrate the 50th birthday of this song from Farz (1967): Baar baar din ye aaye, baar baar dil ye gaaye—Happy birthday to you! Let’s blow out the candles, cut the cake, eat it, and rock the party!
Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 17 December 2017 page 13 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2017-12-17
Featured image on top: from Baar baar din ye aaye, Jeetendra and Babita in Farz (1967)