Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Cory Doctorow @ Boing Boing Blog
Help rat on people who sing Happy Birthday!

Mako sez, "Unhappy Birthday is a website/project commenting on the fact that the song "Happy Birthday To You" is under an actively enforced copyright held by Time Warner. The site offers tools and information to report unauthorized public performances of that work. If educating people and upholding the principle of copyright means risking a DoS of ASCAP's licensing enforcement infrastructure, that's a risk I'm willing to take."


(Thanks, Mako!)

I didn't realize I was engaging in copyright infringement when I sang Happy Birthday in public without paying. Better stop doing that and rat out anyone else who sings it without paying.


If you ever watch an American sitcom or commercial, notice how how when one of the characters is celebrating a birthday, when they bring in the cake, everybody will be singing "For he's a jolly good fellow" instead of "Happy Birthday". Now you know why.

TRIVIA: My great-great-great uncle, James Pierpont wrote "Jingle Bells". I kid you not. (My mother's maiden name is Pierpont)

That explains a lot actually...

What about when kids make up funny lyrics to the same melody? In essence they're still wishing someone a Happy Birthday but with an immature slant attached. Hmm.

Not to talk down the absurdity of this ditty's legal doodah... :p

It's not like Time Warner is enforcing it. TV shows and movies are the main "victims in waiting", and I cannot see how any producer would feel it worth a single penny to have his stars or extras singing that despicable tune.

Just imagine, if a TW lawyer contacted McDonald's Corp, Olive Garden, Sizzlers, Red Lobster, Hooters, etc... "Um, I'm sorry, we can't let you sing happy birthday .. how about ... the theme from Friends"?


(Of course let's not even mention the local teenage filmmaker who innocently (ignorently?) includes it in his $500 movie which then goes on to be a huge international festival award winner and gets a phone call one morning... However much THAT may be the point here.)

I seems to me like a great opportunity for someone to write another birthday song, put it under creative commons license and get some famous band to do a cover of it to make it popular.

So heres an idea, John Perry Barlow can write the lyrics, Joi can do a mix of it, then that Romanian band can do live performances and a video.

Boris -
Most every McDonald, Olive Garden, Sizzlers, Red Lobster and Hooters staff will *not* sing that anymore. They know that they could get swatted with fines.
They'll sing some other song most likely.

When is Bugs Bunny's birthday? Maybe a nice song tribute is in order...

Surely non-commercial use at a private party is not an issue; reuse in a commercial product is. If someone owns something and you make money from reusing it then it is only fair that you pay them for your usage.

This is a pathetic and transparent attempt at thought management and to grab whatever money may be sitting on the table. (i.e. arrogance and greed) Time Warner presses this issue at their own risk.

[quote]This is a pathetic and transparent attempt at thought management and to grab whatever money may be sitting on the table. (i.e. arrogance and greed) Time Warner presses this issue at their own risk. [/quote]

Actually it appears to be a pathetic and transparent attempt by the anti-copyright crowd to smear Time Warner.

I think it's a fair way to hilight the fact that intellectual property laws often don't coincide with what most people call fair or sensible.

The continual extension of copyright when the authors of the works died almost a century ago is becoming increasingly absurd. Drug discovery costs millions and the IP rights still only last ten or twenty years - why should popular culture more than 100 years old still be protected?

Proud to say I sang that very song today!

Thank god that US Law protects the owners of valuable intellectual property like "Happy Birthday".

You know that every time you sing that song without paying a royalty, you're ripping food from the mouths of the artists who created it. For shame.

Yeah, em, my mother-in-law and a 4 year old girl were singing that song last night. Who do I ring to make a report?

Mark -

Time Warner said what they said. It's on record. And I am not part of the "ant-copyright" crowd. While I would happy to speak in favor of and support Time Warner's rights under the law, I am also happy to call them on a breach of the spirit of the law and of common sense.

It was really cute how you tried to turn the tables like that, but wouldn't it be cooler to contribute something to the conversation as opposed to having knee-jerk reactions?

Hey guys, quite bitching! The interesting aspect of this isn't the legal aspect, it's the sociological aspect.

Think about it. 'Happy Birthday' is something you almost definitely did not learn from repeated broadcasts on TV or in the movies. Time Warner has seen to that.

You almost certainly learned it from the people around you. That shows how something can be disseminated globally, without needing mass media to drive it.

Go the people!


Someone should make a catchy happy birthday song to replace the "Happy Birthday" under CC.

The melody of the "Happy Birthday" Song is public domain! Although the lyrics of "Happy Birthday" were copyrighted later, they were in popular use before the lyrics were copyrighted. This raises serious issues about the validity of Time Warners copyright cliam. You can hum the melody of "Good Morning to All" on TV or in a movie if you like and there is not infringement.

There is a 1935 copyright registration for Happy Birthday, but the melody Good Morning to All was formally published in 1893 as part of a collection, registered in October 1893, and is public domain by U. S. statute. (you just can't use the "Happy Birthday" lyrics in public without paying)

Good Morning to All [a.k.a. the birthday melody] included in:
Song Stories for the Kindergarten, pub. 1893
Song Stories for the Kindergarten, revised ed., pub. 1896
[and apparently other pre-1923 editions]
Words: Patty Hill (-1946) Music: Mildred Hill (-1916)

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you,
Good morning, dear children,
Good morning to all.

The song Good Morning to All - from which Happy Birthday was allegedly derived - is free to use (words and music) by U. S. federal statute. (Published before 1923, and furthermore published before 1909)

In the 1930's, the "Happy Birthday" lyrics combined with the Hill's published melody showed up on stage and in singing telegrams. The Hill family allegedly won a 1934 lawsuit for infringement. In 1935 the Hill family registered the "Happy Birthday" copyright.

6- Mark @ March 2, 2005 05:10 PM
Surely non-commercial use at a private party is not an issue; reuse in a commercial product is. If someone owns something and you make money from reusing it then it is only fair that you pay them for your usage.

My comment:
If someone owns something... you mean if someone with enough money rip off and take the copyright of something that been a common property for decades, its ok? Not really!

Now Watch Out! Theres a red thread through all this! So from one industry to another... Ever heard of Biopirates... Multi companies similar to Warner in size are ripping and copyright soil, vegetables and plants all over the world... of what reason? Why?

To keep the common people away from their rights to enjoy food and music, science and health... why?

the only reason is these cold hearted companies trust in mammon... the beast... the money ghost!


Hi everyone. First-time poster here.

While I've never heard Happy Birthday sung on TV, I have heard it performed on the radio numerous times. The radio stations seem to get away with their DJs (and the numerous listeners who call in) singing it on air -- that constitutes a public performance, doesn't it?

Also, assuming TW does own the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, do they only own the English lyrics? I know that while Cantonese Chinese has a birthday song with a different tune, Mandarin Chinese uses the same tune with Mandarin lyrics (duh). Would a TV station get fined for broadcasting the Mandarin version of Happy Birthday then? Does Japanese have its own version of Happy Birthday?

Someone earlier pointed out that only the lyrics are copyrighted, not the song tune itself. Since the Mandarin version's lyrics are different (for non-speakers, it's just 'Wishing you a happy birthday' four times), that wouldn't count as a copyright violantion.

Radio stations can play the song, of course, but they would have to pay a fee (like every other song.) I would say if they aren't playing it, it's because the song isn't all that exciting musically!

Of course outside the USA the laws about copyright are different - but you're not going to be fined, you'll be asked to pay a licensing fee.

Would it be heretical in this context to suggest that the way Time Warner enforce their copyright in Happy Birthday is an example of what's good and flexible about current copyright law? They do enforce their ownership but (obviously) only for commercial use. The people paying for use of the song are the major content producers who have big rights departments whose full-time job is to clear music and other material for use in their output. The rest of us seriously don't need to worry about singing Happy Birthday around the cake. Happy Birthday produces a healthy income stream for Time Warner while remaining perfectly accessible for birthday party use. Where's the problem?

Regarding restaurants like McDonalds, Sizzler, etc. Most of them have open licenses with ASCAP(which also allows them to play CDs, etc.). So they can perform Happy Birthday as much as they want - as long as it's not being filmed for a video which will be sold for profit or filmed for TV.

Also if you perform it at a private party you don't need to pay royalties, same as any other song. Only if it's a public performance, and most venues that will have public performances will have an open license anyway (because they have bands, etc. performing and also play CDs). The only problem is if the public performance is being shown on TV or being sold on video.

If you've sung "Happy Birthday" to your friends and family in public, you owe royalties to Time Warner, which owns rights to the song

But that's the same with any song. If you sing any song in public you owe royalties to the copyright holder.

Copyright "Happy Birthday" - I simply can not believe it. A copyright song to protect the "Happy Birthday" Song is simply beyond belief.

I bet they own the trademark for Christmas and Thanksgiving.

This trademark should never have been issued. I can understand 50 year trademark on a song, but after this many years, the trademark should expire, and not be reissued.

Time Warner = A Rich Pig company with money to buy the Trademark office. Now that is what really happened here.

The United States, owned by lawyers, ran by companies like Time Warner, and not by the people.

Let's Vote On it!!

Next they will trademark Christmas and Jesus will start charging us rent to live on Earth.

Crazy Nutty World.

Some one ripped off my happy birthday and told me I owe three dollars. How far back can they go. I need to pay for another copy in October. I might be entertaining at your birthday.

omg i feel so sorry for you people your lifes must be horrible just worrying about a song. NOT. why are you worrying so for anyway sing the song or dont sing the song what does it matter. You americans worry too much into things. Over here ive heard the song on television radios in the streets etc. why u might ask, well because we have more imprtants things to worry about than being scared of singing a song.

Personally I cannot stand "Happy Birthday to You" at all. I have to admit that I just completely despise the song. I would be happy never to hear it ever again as long as I live. I keep hoping that one day we will all see the light and The Beatles rockin' classic (which opens Disc 2 of The White Album) will take over. "Birthday" is so by far extremely underappreciated, underrated, underplayed. Not liking The Beatles is like not liking the sun and I think "Happy Birthday to You" is almost like an insult to The Fab Four who wrote a great classic that really rocks! Almost nobody has heard of Mildred J. and Patty S. Hill but nearly everybody knows who John Lennon and Paul McCartney are. Why not add to rock and roll to your party. The White Album has the be in fact the greatest rock record ever made!

I am so glad that "Happy Birthday To You" is copyrighted. It should be illegal. People need to overcome their cheesy rituals and move on. People just sing this impulsively without thinking and it has to stop. Any other song will do, that is so true. If I have I will write a new up-to-date "Happy Birthday" song that is suitable for the 21st century. I really kept my fingers crossed and had high hopes that they would give the new century and millenium a fresh opening with a new birthday song that would replace a nowadays taunt-sounding song intended for 19th century nusery and kindergarten children. But my luck and hope completely failed and is yet to come true. Not having to hear that song would to me be an advantage if I was deaf. It is so childish and corny and just a nice sincere "Happy Birthday" greeting would really mean so much more to me. If they want me to have a "Happy Birthday" singing to me will not make me happy. I can listen to The Beatles "Birthday" classic on my CD player and nice greetings from everybody who I know and love would be the best thing ever. Nothing will brighten special your day like a nice and simple "Happy Birthday" greeting from one person at a time. And for today's kids I'll have to write them a new song if somebody else doesn't. It is just so very old-fashioned and has no become so pointless and meaningless, you cannot tell if they really mean it. It has got to stop and people shouldn't waste their time complaining about not being able to sing it or have it sung to them. It is bad enough the way it is and people will do fine without it. They need to move on with the 21st century and stop living in the past. Whenever I hear that song I just run out of the room. People need to be more open into trying new things rather than being set in their old ways. Birthdays would be much more enjoyable and happier if it wasn't for this almost sarcastic-sounding chorus. I don't get it people when who even declare they are a terrible singer will still sing this. It is so hyprocritcal because everybody has been to told a child that "there is no singing at the table", this shouldn't be any exception. Why not have a moment of silence while the candles are lit, so they could have time to think about what wishes they will make. This song should have been a long-time has been but should still always remembered as a relic of birthday's past. I love Christmas carols, but there isn't just one, there are many of them. For say if there was only one Christmas carol than anybody ever sang, I probably would learn to hate it, but there are so many of them and they are all real songs that don't sound anything like taunts. Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" has been labeled overplayed by many people, but trust me it is not being played at every minute of the day. "Happy Birthday To You" makes me appreciate hearing "relatively" repeated Christmas carols playing over and over in the mall, which is only for about a month and a half, but this song you can really not seem to get away from. I always have hope in everything and dreams are always on the horizon. Life would be a lot easier without this song and I'd have to say that any other song is superior. This is in fact the most overworn song on the planet.

6 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: "Happy Birthday" is owned by Time Warner.

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Liebe Feuerwehrkameraden, das Lied (Texte und Melodie) "Happy Birthday" gehört Time Warner. Time Warner achtet peinlich genau auf die Eintreibung von Nutzungsrechten, insbesondere über das Organ Namens ASCAP (eine Art GEMA). SO war es z.B: eine Zeit... Read More

Unhappy Birthday note, the "Happy Birthday to me" statement in my last post was not set to music of any kind. Therefore, my attorney tells me, I am not in violation of copyright statutes. to the RIAA - you can... Read More

Happy Birthday is copyrighted from :: antti vilpponen net ::
March 2, 2005 5:59 PM

Joi has the story from Boing Boing: Mako sez, "Unhappy Birthday is a website/project commenting on the fact that the song "Happy Birthday To You" is under an actively enforced copyright held by Time Warner. The site offers tools and information to r... Read More

If you've sung "Happy Birthday" to your friends and family in public, you owe royalties to Time Warner, which owns rights to the song. So says Unhappy Birthday (link via Joi Ito), which is dedicated to informing the general public about this little-kn... Read More

BoF before BoF from 台灣部落格玩家輕鬆聚
March 10, 2005 11:57 AM

上週四(3/3)邀請到台灣幾位著名Blogger到TWNIC辦公室一遊, 順便聊聊3/29的活動 (見下圖)

萬分感謝大家不計成本地支持3/29 TW Blogger BoF的活動構想--原則上有吃到pizza的....

Read More