Happy Birthday to Ya. Would
That Be Cash or Credit Card?
Minds of the practical kind know it all too well; birthdays can be expensive. And tricky too, specially if it’s your own mate’s, who happens to be picky about that sort of thing. There’s something else increasing the overall price of celebrating you being around: the song everyone sings.
Good Morning to All, the tune American sisters Patty and Mildred Hill wrote in 1893 for school children to sing, somehow became Happy Birthday to You in the early 1900s, through a very serendipitous journey. Along the way, it changed copyright owners, and became very expensive indeed.
Technically, every time someone sings it, which probably happens worldwide thousands of times a day, someone, or rather, some institution collects some dough. It used to be the estate of Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman, who were given credit for the new lyrics in 1935. Now, rather than pay up, some want this tradition changed.
Which means, there’s a new Happy Birthday song around the block, after a radio station in New Jersey set up a contest and chose a winner to replace the old tune. But it’s unlike that you’ll be hearing it sang by a group of underpaid waiters at your local diner anytime soon. These things take time.
Which is just as well. Nothing to remind you of its passage than that over familiar melody, and those repetitive chorus, which by the way, get different lyrics in different countries, not necessarily only its translation. But in English, it may only underline how old you really are. And that’s almost unbearable.
That could be also what’s behind WFMU’s idea, when it teamed with the Free Music Archive to replace the copyrighted song. But the main point was to send the new one straight to public domain, so no one would have to pay for the right to torture you with their particularly out of tune version of it.
CORPORATE-OWNED SONG OF JOY
Happy Birthday is considered the most popular song in the English language by the Guinness Book of Records, along with their usual fare of folks with the longest nails, and the most people ever crammed inside a three-drawer file. It packs several dubious claims within its four-word verse, including being the first performed in outer space.
Also, due to the vagaries of copyright law, it has become a cash cow for its owners, making them some $2 million in royalties every year, according to George Washington University professor Robert Brauneis, who wrote a book about it. It’s unclear whether those nice Hill ladies have ever collected any off their cheerful little ditty.
As many things in this life, Happy Birthday is currently owned by a giant corporation, Warner Music Group, whose top of the line herd of in-house lawyers will make sure anyone who uses it commercially pays up them first. That doesn’t include your friends, of course, when they overwhelm your weak resistance, and sing it again, to your utter embarrassment.
That’s considered private use, not subjected to copyright laws which regulate, say, its use on an independent student film, or execution during a concert for a ticket-payer audience.
That’s why there’s the new song, to make that slightly surreal windfall a bit more reasonable. It’s a completely different game plan to predict whether it’ll catch on, though, almost as hard as to know for sure who among us will make it to our next birthday.
ODE TO A JOLLY GOOD FELLOW
Such unpredictability, and quite a lot of privacy, is what’s usually missing in any birthday celebration. Then again, that’s exactly the point your friends will try to make. And let’s be honest here, when your turn comes to sing for someone else’s gag reaction, you’re glad to sign on and lead the chorus.
In other words, that fake modesty of, oh, it’s just a day like any other that you try to pull over them simply doesn’t get you anywhere. After all, there are worst things in life. Like writing a little tune to make your kids happy, only to see someone else come along and make a killing out of it. Besides, it’s just one day, in the whole year; just relax and enjoy it.
So if today is it for you, let’s us be the first ones to tell you, Happy Birthday.