Someone holds the copyright to "Happy Birthday?" Dan:
The representatives of Patty and Mildred Hill. Isaac:
...Took two people to write that song?
It may well be an old standard, but "Happy Birthday to You" is not in the public domain, and won't be until 2030 (provided copyright durations aren't extended yet again in the meantime). The rights to the song are owned by Warner Music Group (unless you are in Canada, where copyright laws span the creator's life plus fifty years. It expired in 1985 there).
As a result, when a birthday is being celebrated on television, it's fairly rare for those involved to actually sing "Happy Birthday to You." "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" is often substituted (British shows may use "A Fine Old English Gentleman" instead), unlike in the real world, where singing anything other
than "Happy Birthday To You" is almost unheard of (except when the singers are the waitstaff of certain chain restaurants, for exactly the same reason).
The fact that a little ditty sung thousands of times a day around the world, and which only contains five words (not counting the person's name), is subject to copyright laws is serious Snark Bait
. How they even keep track of which movies that aren't huge blockbusters even have it? The fact that you can be sued for realistically portraying a North American birthday party is mind-boggling. This case of copyright laws gone too far is often subject to Lampshade Hanging
Incidentally, even foreign language translations are not exempt — Star Trek
writers found out that even showing it in Klingon
would cost them. British tropers may be relieved to know that the copyright ends in the UK in 2016, while in America it's currently the subject
of a class-action lawsuit.
- Space Runaway Ideon second movie had children singing it...right after the Kill 'em All slaughterfest.
- In Ai Yori Aoshi, the Japanese vocal track used "Happy Birthday to You", while the English dub track substituted a different song.
- In Azumanga Daioh, after Yukari's class offers her a belated birthday present, she triumphantly belts out a Gratuitous English rendition of "Happy Birthday To You."
- The Sakura Taisen TV series has an episode where the mostly-Asian team tries to celebrate Iris' birthday in the Western manner to which she is accustomed, including an attempt at singing an original "happy birthday" song. Kanna is still singing bits of the song to herself several episodes later...
- In an episode of Keroro Gunsou, Keroro gets Mutsumi to compose an original birthday song for Natsumi's surprise party. Lampshaded in the dub, where Keroro tells Mutsumi that he's in charge of "non-copyright-infringing birthday song composition."
- A particularly soul-crushing variant occurs in an episode of Fist of the North Star, with little Lynn singing the most depressing rendition of the song you'll ever hear after the birthday girl's brother is murdered by bandits.
- The Japanese dub of Nightwalker uses the traditional melody, although with different lyrics, in one episode. The same scene in the English dub does the same, with another set of lyrics.
- Mayo Chiki! has an original birthday song composed for Kureha's birthday. Compared to other substitutions, it's not a bad song.
- An episode of Shugo Chara Doki! used the song "Kimi ni Birthday" as a birthday song.
- Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai has them singing "Happy Birthday to You" to Kobato... with the English lyrics.
- In The Kentucky Fried Movie, a character remembers his name by singing "Happy Birthday to You." The directors' commentary notes that that one bit cost them $10,000 (roughly 1.5% of the film's budget).
- Frank's parents sing "Happy Birthday" via a pre recorded message in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- In the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the main cast sing "Happy Birthday" to Rocky, but are cut off by Frank N. Furter when the song is near completion.
- ...And then the audience usually finishes it for them: "Happy birthday, fuck you!"
- The Room. They actually paid for the rights to the song.
- During Beaver's birthday on the Leave It to Beaver movie, as everyone sings "Happy Birthday," two of the kids briefly interrupt with "You smell like a wino."
- In the documentary The Corporation it is claimed that Warner/Chappell charges up to $10,000 for the song to appear in a film. To drive the point home, the sound of the song on archive film is muted, and the narrator explains that they'd rather spend the money to send a crew to Los Angeles to shoot an interview.
- In Rom Com The Wish List, the party guests sing "We Wish You a Happy Birthday."
- Ladder 49: Actually sung at Jack's daughter Katie's birthday party.
- Office Space has the actual song sung during a birthday party in the office.
- On Golden Pond has the characters perform the song for Norman's birthday.
- The Three Stooges sang their own, to the tune of "London Bridge":
Moe: We baked you a birthday cake...
Larry: If you get a tummy ache...
Curly: And you moan and grown and woe...
All: Don't forget, we told you so!
- In Full Metal Jacket, Hartman has the recruits sing it on Christmas Day for Jesus.
- Police Squad!! used the copyrighted tune in one episode when it was originally broadcast, but because of rights issues replaced it with a far funnier droning dirge of a birthday song for subsequent home video release.
- The UK Region 2 copy of the DVD still has the performance of "Happy Birthday."
- One episode of X-Play based around Adam's birthday had fun with this, as his cohost informed him that nobody cared enough about him to spend money on the rights to "Happy Birthday." Instead they opted to have the wait staff from a local restaurant do their birthday song instead.
- Some shows that are predominantly African-American use the chorus of Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" instead. That may also be under copyright, but it's "in sync" with the "hot urban" lifestyle.
- An Internet example: The Funday Pawpet Show have their own birthday song:
"This is your birthday song,
It isn't very long."
- A subplot in an episode of Sports Night involves Danny being fined for singing "Happy Birthday to You" on the air, and subsequently trying to find public-domain songs to sing to each of his co-workers. The episode, quoted at the top, also misidentifies the copyright holders.
- An episode of 30 Rock got around this by having the characters sing it in German. (This occurred at the birthday party of a fictional Austrian prince.)
- In a later episode, however, Jennifer Aniston's character does actually sing the song seductively in the style of Marilyn Monroe.
- Lampshaded in another later episode. Kenneth asks, "Did you know that if you sing happy birthday on a tv show you have to pay for it?" When everyone begins singing Happy Birthday later, it gets interrupted after the first syllable of "happy".
- iCarly hangs a lampshade on it when the characters try to explain why they are in Sadist Teacher Mrs. Briggs' house.
"It's your birthday! Let's sing a Public Domain birthday song! 'For she's a jolly good fellow...
- In another episode, at Sam's birthday party, they begin to sing "Happy Birthday," only for Freddie to shout out "Not P.D.!" They switch to "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow."
- The TV show Lost in Space celebrated the birthday of one of the characters by doing a song that began "Today is Penny's birthday" done to the tune of "For (S)He's a Jolly Good Gellow."
- On Are You Being Served?, the floor staff discovered through some incredibly subtle hints that it was Mrs. Slocombe's birthday, and did various things in preparation, including practicing singing "Happy Birthday to You." They also discovered that they didn't actually know her given name, and test the variable portion of the song with different syllables:
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear ahh-ahhhhh...
- An episode of the short-lived CBC adaptation of Douglas Coupland's jPod had video game programmers attempt to get rights to use the song by kidnapping the rights holder, who just happens to be Canadian. Especially weird, considering that as noted above, the song has been public domain in Canada for years!
- Not weird at all, assuming they would sell the game outside of Canada...
- This was actually sung on a few Sesame Street episodes, such as when the cast celebrated Big Bird's sixth birthday in the 1991 special Big Bird's Birthday OR Let Me Eat Cake. Of course, Sesame Workshop has a hassle getting the song to be sung on home video releases; one episode had to have a brief scene cut just because a character sings the first line of the song!
- An episode in which the cast visits Puerto Rico had them sing it in Spanish, since only the English lyrics are copyrighted, not the melody.
- On America's Funniest Home Videos, videos that feature the song replace it with a wordless version (la la la).
- An episode of Carranger does use the copyrighted version for Blue Racer's birthday.
- In an episode of Get Smart, in order to get Fang (the dog) to blow out a bomb's fuse they sing "Happy Birthday" to him.
- Subverted on Moonlighting, when David Addison and the detective agency's staff throw a surprise party for Maddie Hayes. Instead of either "Happy Birthday" or any public domain options, they sing a different copyrighted song, "Birthday" by The Beatles ("Ya say it's your birthday! It's my birthday too, yeah!")
- Lampshaded in Double Dare (1986), when Harvey began singing a different version of the song (same lyrics, different cadence), but cuts himself off before he sings the sixth word, saying Nickelodeon would have to pay royalties if he sang another word.
- The copyrighted version appears to be Kousei Kougami's favorite song in Kamen Rider OOO. He often sings it while baking cakes.
- Played with in an episode of Community. The episode opens with them mostly through the song, only singing the last "to you" on screen. Then one character wonders aloud why they didn't sing the actual "happy birthday" part. It's then justified in-universe in that the party is for Troy, who as a Jehovah's Witness technically isn't allowed to celebrate his birthday.
- The original version was sung twice in Look Around You at Pam's birthday party, but a new verse was put in between the more familiar one:
Birthdays are a time for celebration
A time when all around you is good cheer
So please all raise your glass
And party may you laugh
And toast this merry fellow that is here!
- When it's Sophie's birthday on Peep Show, her family sings the Altered Images song "Happy Birthday", to the utter bemusement of Mark and Jez. Maybe they thought if they were going to pay royalties for a birthday song, they may as well wring some comedy out of it...
- On the Sprout network's ''Sunnyside Up Show", the host/hostess sings to all the children whose birthday is that day "Happy, Happy Birthday to You", in which it's noted that "you're good to grow/So count the candles and blow!"
- Sung on Gilmore Girls during Rory's 21st birthday which was held at her grandparents' mansion led by Logan
- A.N.T. Farm playfully hangs a lampshade when Chyna stops Olive from singing it and tells her that she knows how it goes. Lexi also does this to Paisley later on in the same episode.
- On Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a song called "Happy Birthday" written by Rogers (but with different music and lyrics) is used.
- Punky Brewster once had piano lessons from Henry, who tried to make her play that song.
- 2 Broke Girls has Caroline sing the first line to a customer. However, the melody is highly stylized, almost unrecognisable as the original tune. She's cut off by Max shortly thereafter, appalled at the soulful singing style.
- Saturday Night Live had a sketch where a songwriter (played by Jack Black) had devised an absurdly elaborate miniature Rock Opera that was supposed to be sung at birthday parties in lieu of "Happy Birthday To You". However, "Happy Birthday To You" itself was used right in the beginning of the sketch.
- Breaking Bad had Skyler sing "Happy Birthday" in the style of Marilyn Monroe to her boss, Ted Beneke, even extending "Mr. Beneke..." to include his full job title.
- A BBC Radio 4 digest of the Edinburgh Festival had an impromptu live performance of the song interrupted by an American lawyer explaining to the producer precisely why they couldn't use that song, so that all we hear is the opening "Happy Birthday..." and closing "...to youuuuu!"
- In On the Town, the emcee at Diamond Eddie's invites the crowd to sing "Happy Birthday" for a "man we all know and love" whose name means nothing at all to the main characters or the audience.
- On the web version of the Homestar Runner short "Strong Bad Sings", the song plays during the "Strong Mad Forgets the Words To His Favorites" scene. On the DVD version, it's changed to Hot Cross Buns.
- When Michelle sings "Happy Birthday" to herself in the Scrambled Eggs comic "Leap of Doom," she uses the lyrics for the This Loser Is You version. (Happy birthday to you, you live in a zoo...)
- In How Did This Get Made? the team is speculating about an imagined version of From Justin To Kelly which used entirely public domain songs, singing various Standard Snippets to each other in overwrought American Idol-style oversinging - "oooOOooh, country 'tiiIIIIiis of theeee...". June-Diane then sings the first line of "Happy Birthday", prompting both Paul and Jason to yell at her for bankrupting the show.
- In King of the Hill, to celebrate his birthday, Bill uses an incredibly awkward replacement song which goes "Someone's got a birthday, I wonder who!" over and over and over again!
- In The Powerpuff Girls episode "Birthday Bash" everyone is about to sing the song. However, they are quickly stopped by the girls, who are in a hurry to get to opening their presents.
- In an episode of Metalocalypse, Murderface is treated to a birthday-themed death metal song: "Many years ago today/Something grew inside your mother...it was YOU"
- Aqua Teen Hunger Force references this trope in the episode "Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary," by having Shake commission Zakk Wylde to write a new, heavy-metal birthday song. It's all an attempt to cash in on royalties (expecting everyone to replace the traditional song with his new one and then pay him for using it).
- Spoofed in an episode of Futurama. While celebrating Nibbler's birthday, all of the cast sing a completely different song (in lyrics and melody), which is assumed to be a version that was adopted sometime in the future. Fry, being from the 20th century, sings the line "And you smell like one, too!" with the original melody after everyone had finished.
- In Bionic Six, the characters sing a song loosely based on the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah.
- Dora the Explorer got away with using the song on one of its episodes thanks to it being sung in Spanish.
- Pingu also managed to feature the song in the episode when Pingu celebrated his birthday, but then again, his friends were singing the song in Penguinese (a gibberish language everyone speaks on the show), so they were able to get away with avoiding the copyrighted lyrics.
- In The Emperor's New Groove this trope is Lampshaded by the staff of Mudka's Meat Hut when they celebrate Yzma's supposed birthday. Ironically, a few establishments sing this song IRL!
One, two, three, GO!
Happy happy birthday, from all of us to you!
We wish it was our birthday, so we could party too!
Happy happy birthday, may all your dreams come true!
We wish it was our birthday, so we could party too!
- The American Dragon Jake Long episode "Bite Father, Bite Son" has a similar birthday song. Same melody, but slightly different lyrics.
- The writers of Arthur simply wrote a new birthday song for one episode.
- An episode of The Berenstain Bears entitled "Too Much Birthday" (based on the book of the same name) has everyone sing to the tune of "London Bridge,"
"Happy birthday, Sister Bear,
Sister Bear, Sister Bear,
Happy birthday Sister Bear,
We all love you!"
- In The Simpsons, a Wall E. Weasel establishment has a cheap animatronic animal band singing "You're the birthday - you're the birthday - you're the birthday - boy or girl!"
- In another episode, a group of waiters sing "Happy First 'A'", to Bart, when he celebrated that.
- A classic early episode had a guy who claimed to be Michael Jackson serenade Lisa; "Lisa, it's your birthday...happy birthday, Lisa!"note
- Earlier in the same episode Lisa sang a forlorn "Happy Birthday to Me" to herself, since she was the only one in the family who remembered her birthday.
- And who can forget the famous/infamous "Happy Birthday" song The Ramones played to Mr. Burns in his birthday. Just 15 seconds, and just the "Happy Birthday to YOU!" chorus, and they left the poor old man trembling and angry.
Smithers: But, sir...
- In the first season episode where Homer buys Marge a bowling ball after forgetting her birthday, they go to a restaurant with singing waiters, who do sing the actual song "Happy Birthday to You."
- In the season 5 episode "Rosebud," Burns and Smithers are discussing the preparations for Burns' upcoming birthday:
Smithers: On another topic, the preparations for your birthday have begun.
Mr. Burns: I won't get what I really want.
Smithers: No one does.
Smithers has a fantasy of a naked Burns popping out of a cake
(singing à la Marilyn Monroe
) Happy birthday, Mr. Smithers...
- There is a Simpsons comic book issue in which Homer and his pals became volunteer firefighters, and when they realized they couldn't do anything when a fair caught on fire, Ralph comes up with an idea to put out the fire, by singing the birthday song and blowing it out like birthday candles. The whole cast begins to sing the song, but then the Blue-Haired Lawyer comes in warning them about the royalties of the song they'd need to pay to sing it before he passes out from the smoke. So Lisa writes up a new unique birthday song ("...pleasant birthday to that person, we're glad you're not dead!") and then they all blow on the fire, which actually extinguishes the blaze!
- In "Krusty Gets Busted", a little girl was having her birthday celebrated at Krusty's show and Krusty offered her a choice: have Krusty sing her a birthday song; or have Sideshow Bob shot off a cannon. She chose the cannon.
- In The Venture Bros., Dr. Girlfriend was going to surprise The Monarch wearing panties and a strategically placed bow (and boots and pillbox hat) singing "Happy Birthday" a la Marilyn Monroe to JFK, but instead sang "For He's a Sexy Good Fellow." In that stevedore voice of hers.
- An episode of Garfield and Friends gives us this little number.
- Aversion (sort of): In the Wallace & Gromit film The Wrong Trousers, Wallace gives Gromit a birthday card which plays an instrumental of "Happy Birthday to You." But even though the melody is supposedly not copyrighted, the producers were still forced to replace it (with "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow") after the first video release.
- Home Movies has an episode at Fenton's birthday party, with a birthday song so annoying and asinine that it's an object lesson against copyrighting tunes like 'Happy Birthday'.
- In Adventure Time, the party-goers at Finn's birthday party are only heard singing the last two words to the song.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic had Pinkie Pie sing a variation to the Cake's newborn twins ("Happy happy Birthday to you and you today...") but she gets cut off by the nurse before getting any further (singing in a maternity ward and all). She's later able to finish it, albeit as "Happy Monthiversary," which celebrates the twins'... well, one month anniversary of their birth. Witness it here.
- In the first Madagascar movie, Alex, Melman and Gloria sing the This Loser Is You version to Marty. (Happy birthday to you, you live in a zoo...)
- South Park: In a Christmas Episode, the lonely birthday boy was singing "Happy Birthday to Me".
- An episode of Rugrats, entitled "Baking Dil" Didi (who is celebrating her birthday in that episode) and her friend Betty go out for lunch at a restaurant where a quartet sing a birthday song for her to the tune of "God Save the Queen." In order to stall her (as there was a surprise birthday party for her at home), Betty gets the quartet to sing her an anniversary and a Bar Mitzvah song, too (also to the tune of aforementioned song).
- "Happy Birthday To You" was used as background music in a Popples episode about Bonnie's birthday when the kids see a cake in Bonnie's room.
- Happy Birthday Squidward! Pin the tail on the seahorse!
- Clerks: The Animated Series: Averted; they sing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" instead.
- Sockarang sings a Happy Birthday song to Axe Cop to the tune of "B-I-N-G-O."
- Chain restaurants like Applebee's, Bennigan's, and TGI Friday's usually make a fuss over customer birthdays, but the staff must sing an original corporate birthday song or chant because it is a "public performance"; if they were to sing "Happy Birthday" it would have to be licensed and paid for.
- Since, as previously mentioned, it's only the lyrics that are copyrighted, not the melody, this tends not to be the case at foreign-food places; for example, a certain Italian chain restaurant sings a Pavarotti-esque rendition of Happy Birthday in Italian.
- Until they got an incredible amount of flak, the rights holders to the song were threatening to sue the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts for use of the song (without, of course, having purchased a performing rights license) at campfires and scouting events. The bad publicity wasn't just loud, it was positively deafening, so much so that they agreed not to do so.
- Italian rock band Elio e le Storie Tese had the song "Al mercato di Bonn" removed from their 2003 album "Cicciput", because it was about the discovery that Beethoven wrote the melody for "Happy Birthday to You", and thus contained a sample of the song, lyrics and all. Luckily for the fans, they managed to "accidentally" broadcast the song during a popular radio show.