Strange but True: Who owns the rights to 'Happy Birthday' song?


Q: Is there anything offbeat about your birthday that you share with many others? No, it's not the date, though that IS shared by millions of others around the world.

A: It's the iconic eight-note sing-song "Happy Birthday to You," which the "Guinness Book of World Records" cites as "the most recognizable English-language song in existence," says Dan Lewis in his book "Now I Know More."

The song was composed in 1893 by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, who called it "Good Morning to All" ("Good morning to you/ Good morning to you/ Good morning dear children/ Good morning to all"). How the more well-known lyrics became affixed to the famous melody is unclear, but they appeared in a 1924 book as a second stanza after the original good morning song. In 1935 the publishing company of "Good Morning to All" copyrighted "Happy Birthday." Rights owner Warner Music Group has continued to enforce the copyright for public and/or for-profit performances, having netted itself $2 million in royalties in 2008 alone. (Singing the song at a private gathering is not an issue.)

But in a stunning reversal of decades of copyright claims, a federal judge in Los Angeles recently ruled that "none of the companies that have collected royalties on the 'Happy Birthday' song for the past 80 years held a valid copyright claim" ("Los Angeles Times").

Q: They were fancifully dubbed "Sleeping Beauties" of science. What are they, and can you name a few examples?

A: Discovery lies at the core of science but rediscovery can be just as important, says Amber Williams in "Scientific American" magazine. Indiana University researchers sifted through 22 million scientific papers and found dozens of "Sleeping Beauties" — those studies that had been largely unnoticed for years until suddenly being "reawakened," often by researchers in other fields who came looking for fresh insights.

Top ones were in the areas of chemistry, physics and statistics. For example, John Turkevich wrote a paper about suspending gold nanoparticles in liquid. "It owes its awakening to the medical field, which now employs gold nanoparticles to detect tumors and deliver drugs."

And the famous thought experiment in quantum physics by Albert Einstein and colleagues could at first be discussed only theoretically, but by the 1970s physicists were able to test quantum entanglement experimentally.

As for the future of Sleeping Beauties, project team member Qing Ke says they will likely become "even more common because of the increasing availability and accessibility of scientific literature."

Q: If you were challenged to sum up your life's work in just six words, what would you say? Consider the following responses — from ironic to inspirational — from these 10 scientists, as reported in Science magazine, edited by Jennifer Sills.

A: "Data overload: Juggling balls, many fall." (Noa S., cell therapy, Israel)

"Thinking over the nature of thought." (Rohan S., neuroscience, India)

"Everything in moderation, or maybe not?" (Ryan C., nutritional science, USA)

"Living beings make me like fossils." (Shivangi T., geology, India)

"Let's create a dancing colorful bacteria." (Anibal A., synthetic biology-plants, Chile)

I bunsen burnt my 1118th worm." (Eugene L., neuroscience, USA)

"Living my life under extreme pressure." (Alexandra S., mineral physics, Germany)

"Planets found. Now searching for life." (David W., astronomy, USA)

"Cradle to grave fight against waste." (Jingzheng R., environmental engineering, Denmark)

"Scientists: Global citizens with local burdens." (Hari Krishna B., liquid crystalline materials, USA)

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at


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