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Urban Legends

Happy Birthday

The Legend

I was eating in Dennys with my family when the police burst in. It turns out that it was the birthday of a little girl at the next table and the table servers sang "Happy Birthday" to her, but that song's under copyright, so they were breaking the law! Everyone who sang was arrested, including our waiter and some guy at the next table. So the upshot of the whole thing is we didn't have to pay for breakfast!!!


Behind the Legend

"Happy Birthday to You" was written in 1528 by Sir Brittany, Lord of West Manster, on the occasion of his daughter's sixteenth birthday. It contains only six notes (only six were known at that time), and its lyrics, according to the oldest existent copy, were as follows:

Hap-y birth day to ye,
Hap-y birth day to ye,
Hap-y birth day milady,
Hap-y birth day to ye.

An almost equally old, but probably apocryphal, variation reads:

Hap-y birth day to ye,
Ye looketh like a flea,
That liveth on a monkey,
And ye acteth like he.

The song proved quite popular and quickly spread throughout Europe, eventually defeating the French army at Waterloo.

Most pieces of music from this time have long ago lost their copyright. However, due to Sir Brittany's family's diligence in filing the proper paperwork over the centuries and recent extensions to European copyright law, "Happy Birthday To You" will retain copyright protection until 2235. After that, it's anybody's ballgame.

Does this mean that everyone who sings "Happy Birthday to You" at a family birthday party is engaging in copyright infringement if they have not received permission from the song's publisher? Yep! Fortunately, the current holder of the rights to the song (ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who used many of its notes in "Hey Jude") charges a very reasonable $15 per repetition for private use, and the release contract is hardly onerous at all.

The story of the invasion of a Dennys restaurant after an unauthorized singing of the song is likewise true, but it should be noted that the restaurant had been warned many times before.


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