Pay to sing Happy Birthday

Could you ever imagine that the popular childhood song titled “Happy Birthday” was worth a cool $5 million dollars? How many times have you sung the popular song “Happy Birthday” without paying the royalty dues that are required as part of the copyright regulations. The popular version that we all know the words to by heart was actually copyrighted in 1935 by the Summy Company as an arrangement by Preston Ware Orem, and according to Wikipedia
is scheduled to expire in 2030. Actually royalties are not required for private renditions of the song, however public performances of the song are technically illegal unless royalties are paid to the owner of the copyright. Who knew when Marilyn Monroe sung her lustily rendition to then President Kennedy that she was actually in violation of a federally protected intellectual piece of property. The company holding the copyright was purchased by Warner Chappell in 1990 for $15 million dollars. (It is merely a rumor that Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney own the copyright.)Restaurants such as Applebee’s must pay royalties when they sing the Happy Birthday song to their customers. Perhaps that is why they have come up with their own rendition:
Happy Happy Birthday
From Applebee’s to you
We wish it was our birthday
So we could party to, HEY!
I just hope I don't have to pay royalties for typing "Happy Birthday" in the title of this blog.


Patrick said...

What good is a copyright if nobody knows about it? Why spend $15 million for a copyright when very few people even know it exists? And my guess is that very few, if anyone, every actually paid royalty fees for singing the song. The purpose of a copyright is to give yourself a competitive advantage for a period of time by sustaining a unique asset. However, how has Summy Company or Warner Chappell benefited by being the copyright holder? I don't think they have. Just as a lot of government controlled "protections" don't really do any good, I don't think having a copyright on "Happy Birthday" is worth that much... just $15 million...?

Dr. Tufte said...

I think Patrick has kind of missed the scale here.

The value of a copyright on Happy Birthday would be tremendous, if it was widely enforceable. Apparently it isn't. But it must be somewhat enforceable: probably from card companies.

On the other hand, the entire Beatles catalog is valued at 10-20 times this amount, so it seems that $15M is pretty good for a single song.

William said...

Dr. Tufte,
I think that it is interesting to hear that the "Happy Birthday" song has a copyright. I never knew this before.

As you mentioned if it was enforced and if people knew about it then they would obviously make a fortune from it. People and companies sing it so many times without ever being notified or charged. I wonder if any company has ever paid the fee. It would be interesting to know more about why the company bought it and if they received any money from it since they bought it.

Dr. Tufte said...

My guess is that they are making money off of novelty makers who include the song in cards or stuffed animals, or put it on coffee cups.