Can We Create a New “Happy Birthday” Song?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 2 2013 12:17 PM

Can We Replace the “Happy Birthday” Song?

happybirthday
Fred Rogers sang his own birthday song on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

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Creative Commons, the nonprofit organization behind (among other things) those popular online copyright licenses, recently turned 10 years old. To mark the occasion, the Free Music Archive has launched a contest to replace the “Happy Birthday” song with a new tune that people could use for free.

The traditional song is not in the public domain: It was acquired in 1988 by Warner Music Group, which reportedly collects “upward of $2 million a year from film and TV fees off the song,” and their copyright is not scheduled to expire until 2030. As Paul Collins demonstrated in Slate in 2011, that copyright claim is highly dubious, but it has not yet been successfully disputed, in part because it is probably cheaper to simply pay the fee than to challenge the claim in court.

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Sometimes, though, movies and shows avoid the fees by using their own birthday compositions. The FMA collected a bunch of those alternatives in the video below. As usual, Mister Rogers wins. (Sadly missing: the birthday song Jack Black performed on Saturday Night Live several years ago, probably the greatest alternative to “Happy Birthday” ever written.)

If you want to submit your own alternative birthday song, you can read the rules at the FMA website. Entries are due by Jan. 13, and judges include Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo and past Slate contributor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University. Good luck.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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