How could “Happy Birthday To You” be copyrighted?

Dear Cecil:

At the end of the movie Citizens Band, there is a copyright notice for the song "Happy Birthday." This is appalling. How could somebody copyright a song that's been part of the common culture for centuries? Is this some smart Lawyer's idea of a quick buck or what?

Cecil replies:

They could copyright it because they wrote it: two sisters, Mildred J. and Patty S. Hill, published the song in 1893 under the title, “Good Morning to You.” It was no chartbuster, but reissued in 1936 with a new set of slightly ill-fitting lyrics — “Happy Birthday to You.” — it became, shall we say, rather popular. Under the present laws, the song will be protected by copyright until 1996, at which time anyone can sing it who damn well feels like it. “Happy Birthday,” lest we forget, was the first song to be performed in outer space, having been given a stirring rendition by the Apollo IX astronauts on March 8, 1969.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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