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Did you know the Happy Birthday song is actually a rip-off?



Sheet music for the song Good Morning To All is seen in this undated photo by the University of Louisville, Kentucky. Composed by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill sometime in the 19th century, the song would eventually be reborn as Happy Birthday To You, one of the most well-known melodies in the world. Photo: Reuters/University of Louisville

A college librarian in Kentucky has found the 19th-century manuscript of a musical number that gave rise to one of the most widely performed songs in the world, Happy Birthday To You, according to University of Louisville officials on Aug 31.

The university says its library director, James Procell, recently found the only known manuscript of Good Morning To All, a melody that the public eventually began to sing with the familiar tribute, “happy birthday to you.”

The document was found in a sketch book belonging to Louisville native Mildred Hill, who wrote Good Morning To All with her sister Patty, a kindergarten teacher, and published it in a children’s song book in 1893. The manuscript and other papers were donated to the library in the 1950s by a friend of the Hill sisters, but were not catalogued. As a result of the oversight, the manuscript remained hidden in its archives for decades.

Copyright dispute

The discovery is likely to intensify interest in a high-profile US court case over whether Warner Music Group has a valid copyright to the Happy Birthday song and can continue to reap from it an estimated US$2mil (RM8.3mil) in royalties every year.

While the university made no mention of a copyright notice on the manuscript, it’s unlikely that its discovery will have a direct impact on the federal lawsuit, filed by a group of artists who argue the song has been copyright-free for decades, says their lawyer, Mark Rifkin.

The artists, a musician and three filmmakers, filed their putative class action against Warner in 2013 seeking a return of the fees Warner has collected over the years for use of the song, mostly in TV and film. Warner’s copyright of the song originates with the Clayton F. Summy Co, later known as Birch Tree and acquired by Warner. Summy had apparently obtained registrations to Happy Birthday To You in 1935, according to court papers.

US District Judge George King in Los Angeles is mulling over the arguments made by both sides. The artists recently told him they found a “smoking gun” in the form of an old songbook that they say legally proves the copyright is no longer valid. Warner, however, continues to dispute that claim. A spokesman for Warner could not immediately be reached for comment.

Procell plans to digitise and catalogue Mildred Hill’s papers and a concert of her music is planned for 2016, a century after her death, says the university. – Reuters/Andrew Chung

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