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Understanding the Music Royalties for the Happy Birthday Song

The world of music royalties is a lucrative business. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is how the song “Happy Birthday to You” makes money for AOL Time Warner (yes, somebody does own the song). It is estimated that AOL Time Warner brings in about $2 million a year in royalties. Not a bad chunk of change for a song that is protected until 2030 by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.

So, how did this happen? How does a company own a song that everyone sings? In short, Happy Birthday to You started out as Good Morning to You, change a couple words, put it on Broadway, and it became a global hit. The creators of Good Morning to You, (two school teachers, Mildred and Patty Hill) were able to prove to the courts that the only thing that had changed from their original song were the words, and thus, the copyright was given to the Hill’s. The copyright has exchanged hands and is now in the hands of AOL Time Warner.

Royalties have to be paid for a number of uses. Here are some examples:
• Radio
• TV
• Internet Music and Mobile Entertainment
• Commercial Music Services
• Live Concert Venues

All of a sudden you can see how these fees can add up to big money for the rights holder. You can also begin to understand why music royalty software to automate payments is necessary when dealing with music royalties. The number of payments can be very large, sporadic, and complex.

Now, does this mean you can’t sing it at home? No, according to George Washington University School of Law professor Robert Brauneis “If you want to sing it at your home at a birthday party you don’t have to pay anything, because that is a private performance.” However, once you use it commercially, you have to pay up.

Ever wonder why restaurants sing a different (usually annoying and way too upbeat) happy birthday jingle? Now you know.





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