The song "Happy Birthday", with its ill-fitting lyrics and numbingly simple tune, is actually owned by a subsidiary of the media conglomeration known as AOL Time Warner. How a song as common as this ended up in the hands of a multi-national media group is nearly as interesting as the origins of the song itself.
The tune of the song is believed to have been written by a woman from Kentucky named Mildred J. Hill sometime around 1893. Her sister, Patty Smith Hill, had already composed a simple greeting song called "Good Morning to You" for her students. Mildred and Patty Hill were both influential in the world of early childhood education, and their greeting song was eventually published in a collection of kindergarten songs. At that time, however, there was no lyrics which actually contained the words "Happy Birthday".
By the mid-1920s, several songbooks contained "Happy Birthday" as a second verse of the Hill sister's "Good Morning to You". Several motion pictures used the song without crediting the songwriters, which prompted a third sister named Jessica Hill to demand legal compensation. Jessica Hill also established her sisters as the legal copyright owners of the work.
This is where ownership rights of "Happy Birthday" become a movable feast. Jessica Hill worked with the Clayton F. Summy musical publishing company to first publish the song as a copyrighted work in 1935, crediting the lyrics to Preston Ware Orem, an employee of Summy. Originally, the copyright owned by the Hill sisters would have lasted for two consecutive 28 year terms. However, modern changes to copyright law have added several more decades of protection, making the work privately-owned until at least the year 2030.
The chain of ownership for "Happy Birthday" begins with Jessica Hill and the Clayton F. Summy Company. A New York-based businessman acquired the company and renamed it Birch Tree Ltd. A subsidiary of Warner Communications, Warner Chappell, eventually bought Birch Tree Ltd. in the late 1990s, renaming it Summy-Birchard Music. Time-Warner merged with Internet giant AOL to form Time Warner AOL.
Although any commercial production which uses this song must pay royalties or obtain a license from ASCAP or the Harry Fox agency, individuals can still sing it in the privacy of their own homes. Technically, bars and restaurants without ASCAP licenses cannot allow employees to perform "Happy Birthday" for customers, which is why many of these places create their own birthday songs as substitutes.