“Happy Birthday is such a ubiquitous tune that it sounds like it might be folk music, but it has the copyright protection secured by Ken Guilmartin's grandfather, John F. Sengstack. First known as ‘Good Morning to You,’ the tune was published in 1893 in a book for Sunday school teachers, and then people started using the tune for the ‘Happy Birthday’ words. Sengstack's Clayton F. Summy Company found the tune in its portfolio and published a copyrighted instrumental arrangement, by its employee Preston Ware Orem, in 1935.
John Sengstack passed the business on to his son, David, the brother of Ken Guilmartin's mother Joan, a psychiatric social worker. Known as Summy Birchard and then as the Birch Tree Group, this company published the innovative Frances Clark piano library, which had been developed by Clark and Louise Goss at the New School of Music (now located on Route 27 in Kingston). David Sengstack moved the business from Evanston, Illinois, to Princeton in 1978. He had also acquired the rights to all Suzuki materials sold outside of Japan.
In 1990 David Sengstack sold the Birch Tree Group to Warner Brothers, not for the $25 million that has been reported, but, he says, for $15 million. ‘We were the last of the old small companies to be picked up for a pretty good price,’ says Sengstack, who suggests the Happy Birthday tune was worth about $5 million the Suzuki rights were also worth $5 million.
Sengstack, who has five children plus his nephew Guilmartin, says he distributed those proceeds to family members and used $1.5 million to establish a non-profit foundation. With his background in Suzuki training, he was interested in promoting awareness of the importance of early childhood development. Yet his 1993 attempt to use his own and the foundation's funds to publish an early childhood development newsletter did not prove viable. Meanwhile his daughter, Lynn Sengstack, represented the family interests at Warner Brothers for a while and is now general manager for her cousin's enterprise, Music Together.”*
The next time you hear 'Happy Birthday' in a movie — and now that you’re listening, it won’t be long — stay for the credits at the end of the movie. Think about how Hollywood would love the story of the Hill sisters, two Southern kindergarten teachers who write a song that they only hope will be a useful teacher’s aid. Instead, the song is a hit that never goes away. It is sung hundreds of millions of times each year, a musical juggernaut that tops the efforts of Tin Pan Alley’s best. Appropriately, then, film credits are the one place left where Mildred and Patty Hill still get their due."*
Would [the endlessly self-perpetuating nature of the publishers' claim] justify continuing to extend copyrights indefinitely, say, for those granted to F. Scott Fitzgerald or his lesser known contemporaries? Would it not, in principle, justify continued protection of the works of Shakespeare, Melville, Mozart, or perhaps Salieri, Mozart's currently less popular contemporary? Could it justify yet further extension of the copyright on the song Happy Birthday to You (melody first published in 1893, song copyrighted after litigation in 1935), still in effect and currently owned by a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner?
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie
It's your birthday...
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