Lost 'Happy Birthday' Manuscript Found in Kentucky as Debate Over Song's Copyright Drags On
While the battle over "Happy Birthday’s" copyright drags on, a college librarian in Kentucky has discovered the long-lost manuscript of the ditty’s earliest version. Tucked inside a sketchbook that was donated to the University of Louisville half a century ago is the only known manuscript of Mildred Hill's song "Good Morning to All," which evolved into the pre-candle-blowout soundtrack we all know so well.
James Procell, the director of the school's Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library, recently discovered the manuscript along with other papers and compositions by Hill, a native of the area. They were donated in the '50s by a local philanthropist but almost immediately lost when they weren’t archived properly.
The composition, which Hill co-wrote with her sister Patty, boasts a slightly different melody from the published version, yet the lyrics are the same. "The question is, is this the original version of the song, or was Ms. Hill somehow unhappy with the published version and this represents a revision of the song?" Procell said.
The library said it will digitize the Hill materials in the coming months and will work with music faculty to organize a concert in 2016 to mark a century since Hill’s death. One thing that will be missing from the digital version of the song will be the first page of the manuscript, which was missing when the sketchbook was found.
The manuscript’s discovery is not expected to have an impact on the ongoing debate over the “Happy Birthday” song copyright, which earns about $2 million a year in royalties for its disputed owner, Warner/Chappell Music. Many people believe the 120-year-old song should be in the public domain.
A class-action lawsuit was filed in 2013 after the publisher billed filmmaker Jennifer Nelson $1,500 to use the song in her “Happy Birthday” documentary. Another plaintiff, director Robert Siegel, said he paid $3,000 to use the song in his indie film Big Fan. The lawsuit is asking Warner/Chappell to reimburse the money it has collected in music synch licenses.
Some background: The Hill sisters sold their rights to the song to the Clayton F. Summy Company in 1893 — the same year it was written — in exchange for 10 percent of retail sales. Over time, the tune and lyrics for "Good Morning" evolved into the song that it is today. Its "Happy Birthday" lyrics appeared in a 1924 songbook and the piano parts were published in 1935 -- which is when Warner/Chappell argues it began its 95 years of protection under copyright law. Decades later the song's copyright was held by Birch Tree Group Limited, which was purchased by Warner/Chappell for $15 million in 1988. "Happy Birthday" will remain under copyright until 2030 unless a court decides it belongs to the public domain.
At a July hearing in California federal court, presiding Judge George King pressed pause on the suit in order to wait on “smoking gun” evidence that plaintiffs say includes a 1922 songbook with uncredited “Birthday” lyrics. The evidence, they say, proves the song was in the public domain prior to 1935, when Summy published the melody and lyrics. In short, if the plaintiffs can prove the Hill sisters surrendered the song to the public prior to 1935, then the song is outside the Warner-owned copyright based on Summy’s registration.
Judge King has not scheduled any future hearings.