The song Happy Birthday to You (HBTY) has a story to tell, and it’s not wishing you to have a good one on this, the anniversary of your birth. The most recognizable song in the English language – a simple six notes and words - is owned by Time Warner, who will charge you ten grand to legally sing the four verses in a public place like a school or restaurant. But the history of how HBTY turned into a two million dollar a year corporate earner is the interesting part. It’s a case study in the copyright-by-fiat strategy that has recently proven so popular with corporate minions and robots. They allege intellectual ownership where none exists, and they often get away with it.
There are many ways to right this wrong. You could challenge HBTY’s dubious copyright in court, as long as you’re prepared for a foe like Time Warner. Or you could try to shame Time Warner by urging innocent birthday revelers to request permission for every innocent public “performance” of the song. Both are worthy endeavors, but neither one sounds like much fun.
No, for our purposes here, we’ll encourage you to unseat (or at least unsettle) “Happy Birthday to You” from it’s cultural throne by composing possible replacements. The Free Music Archive Happy Birthday contest seeks a few new Happy Birthday songs that are simple and catchy, with great earworm potential (remember: HBTY uses only six notes!) that can be sung in restaurants, bowling alleys, even in TV shows and movies – free of charge. Together, let us shake “Happy Birthday” from it’s fortified cultural throne, and replace it with a melody that the children can sing without fear of being served.
The three top entries will be all dressed up and distributed to the most powerful media companies on earth with colorful, Ross Perot-style financial incentive charts encouraging the recipients to better their bottom line by using one of these shiny new Happy Birthday replacement tracks. WFMU will organize and pay for the digital and physical mailings of the three winning tracks to the luckiest people on earth- any media or public organization who might have need for new birthday songs - movie studios; theater troupes, restaurant chains; sport leagues, scouting associations, youth groups; minor league baseball teams, major league Jai Alai squads, bowling alleys and we’ll also send the track to music journalists, bloggers and radio stations to help get the word out and cement the new songs into the cultural subconscious.