Arts & Entertainment

A look back at 'Happy Birthday' songs that cleverly avoided royalties

A girl blows out birthday candles.
A girl blows out birthday candles.
Kevin Chodzinski/Flickr Creative Commons

A court decision Tuesday put the classic "Happy Birthday to You" in the public domain, at least for the moment. Up until that ruling, films, TV shows, even restaurants have had to exercise considerable creativity to create alternate songs, often to avoid paying royalties for the original song. We thought we'd round up some of the most popular and the most clever.

For He's A Jolly Good Fellow

One of the most ubiquitous, this song has long been firmly in the public domain, with origins dating to the 18th century. It's a go-to for those looking to avoid "Happy Birthday" royalties — including "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which wished Worf a happy birthday with a Klingon version of the song.

Klingon For He's A Jolly Good Fellow

Stephen Colbert's patriotic birthday riff

Stephen Colbert took a shot at then-copyright-holder Warner's litigious hold over "Happy Birthday," creating a version of "Happy Birthday to You" with modified lyrics — sung to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Sitcom subversion

The fact that you have to pay a couple limbs (or at least 4 to 5 figures) for the use of the song has inspired several sitcoms to take a shot at it. This scene from "Community" starts with the last two words of the song, while also making clear in the story that they deeeeefinitely didn't sing the rest of the song. Whew. Copyright violation avoided!

Community birthday

"Futurama" did a futuristic take on the song, with  slightly different lyrics and one melodic change to separate it from the version we know (though it ends with un-claimed add-on lyrics we've all come to know.)

A buffet of restaurant birthday songs

A dinner out to celebrate someone's birthday wouldn't be complete without an embarrassing birthday song that makes them the center of attention. And nothing works better than having restaurant employees wish them a happy birthday in humiliating song.

Chili's uses perhaps the most well-known — the superspeed version, preceded by an announcement to the restaurant:

Chili's birthday song

Red Robin has used a variety of songs — including one that makes strange use of "Alouette," safely in the public domain after it's popularization during World War I. Presented here for your approval:

Red Robin song 1

Red Robin song 2

Friendly's used a song set to the cadence of an Army march, that also feels vaguely threatening:

Friendly's song

Of course, the people who are usually happiest about public birthday wishes are kids. There's nowhere that that's more a part of the experience than the Chuck E. Cheese birthday call-and-response (and dance):

Chuck E. Cheese song

YouTube "Happy Birthday [NAME]!" videos

YouTube has spawned a whole cottage industry of odd "Happy Birthday [Name]!" videos. Go type your name into YouTube; you'll likely come up with plenty of them. Here are a few examples of this weird video site subculture. Some are more careful to avoid copyright violations than others (though you'll notice the one who sings the actual song slightly tweaks the melody):

Name video 1

Name video 2

Name video 3

IFC's the Birthday Boys did a riff on this, with a sketch on their TV show about birthday wishes. They then created a YouTube channel with a number of customized birthday songs, like this one, where space alien Woosh conveniently hides his mouth whenever he says your name:

Happy Birthday Hannah!

What are your favorite thinly-veiled attempts to skirt Happy Birthday copyright? Let us know in the comments.