Singing Happy Birthday is illegal without a license

Yes you did read it correct, and No it is not a joke… I heard about this a while ago, but shrugged it off as being nonsense. Well this evening  I found out the hard way that it is true.

This evening I was watching a serious program on the TV, and a small group of people were going to surprise a friend because it was his birthday.. of course the friend did not know the other people knew it was his birthday. But, the only person that got an (unpleasant) surprise was me, when suddenly the TV blurted out a 60 second long bleeeeeeep and a message saying they could not broadcast the singing of “Happy Birthday” because it was against Licensing Regulations.. WTF!!!!  this has gotta be a sick and perverted joke right?… Sorry, here is the deal

Did you know Happy Birthday is copyrighted and the copyright is currently owned and actively enforced by Time Warner?

Did you know that if you sing any copyrighted song:
…at a place open to the public
…or among a substantial number of people who are not family or friends
You are involved in a public performance of that work?

Did you know an unauthorized public performance is a form of copyright infringement?

Is Happy Birthday Really Copyrighted?


The melody for Happy Birthday was first penned by two sisters from Kentucky, Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill. The song was called Good Morning to All, but bore the recognizable melody. The tune was first published in 1893 in the book Song Stories for the Kindergarten. The melody has since passed into the public domain, and is safe to hum in public without permission.

While it is not entirely clear who first wrote down the words for Happy Birthday, it showed up in a few places before Jessica Hill (another Hill sister) was able to demonstrate undeniable similarities between Good Morning to All and Happy Birthday and to secure the copyright to the song.

Working with the Clayton F. Summy Publishing Company, Jessica Hill published and copyrighted Happy Birthday in 1935. While the copyright should have expired in 1991, copyright has been extended repeatedly over the last quarter of the twentieth century and the copyright for Happy Birthday is now not due to expire until at least 2030.

The Clayton F. Summy Company is no longer independent, but, through a chain of purchases, the copyright for Happy Birthday To You lies securely in the hands of the Time Warner company. Happy Birthday’s copyright is licensed and enforced by ASCAP, and the simple little ditty brings in more than USD $2 million in annual royalties.

Is Singing Happy Birthday in Public Really Copyright Infringement?


According to United States copyright law in United States Code, Title 17 §106, authors of works such as musical compositions have the exclusive right “to perform the copyrighted work publicly.” In United States Code, Title 17 §101, the law defines publicly performing a work as “to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.”

This means that if you sing Happy Birthday to your family at home, you’re probably not committing copyright infringment. However, if you do it in an restaurant — and if the restaurant hasn’t already worked out a deal with ASCAP — you may be engaging in copyright infringement.

** the above was borrowed with all good intention from www.unhappybirthday.com

So, there you have it, next time you are at a birthday party, make sure you acquire the proper license before you sing Happy Birthday.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 at 9:34 pm and is filed under sad but true. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.


  1. November 25th, 2012 | anon says:

    This is kinda silly. It isn’t illegal to sing it because you are not making money off of the public performance. And the more people sing it the more recognizable it becomes. Just like any music. The artist wants you to memorrize and sing their tune because in the end it makes them sell more songs.

  2. July 1st, 2014 | Mackintosh says:

    It’s also illegal to talk to yourself because of misconception.

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