Skip to main content

Jonathan Coulton and others pick songs to replace copyrighted 'Happy Birthday to You'

Jonathan Coulton and others pick songs to replace copyrighted 'Happy Birthday to You'

Share this story

A panel of judges including musician Jonathan Coulton and intellectual property reform advocate Lawrence Lessig have picked the winners in a contest to replace copyrighted song "Happy Birthday to You." Despite having existed for at least a century and being almost universally recognized in the English-speaking world, "Happy Birthday to You" isn't in the public domain, and recording or publicly performing it requires a license from ASCAP. It's one of the most controversial pieces of copyrighted material, and ASCAP has gotten bad press for allegedly going after Girl Scouts who sung the song and stretching the budgets of documentary filmmakers who have to pay to show personal celebrations. But will we actually want to sing the new picks?

The first-place song is "It's Your Birthday!" by Monk Turner and Fascinoma, which the panel said "captures a feeling of heartfelt well-wishing." Unfortunately, perhaps because it's so heavily polished, we can't really imagine singing it around a cake and candles. The second-place winner, Bob Barta's "An Alternative Birthday Song," is better — but mostly because it's a barely tweaked version of "Happy Birthday to You," touted as "the closest possible to our current birthday song without crossing the line." Our money is on the third-place Blank Tapes song, also called "It's Your Birthday!," and we're not the only ones who liked it. It was Coulton's top pick, both for being "singable" and because "It hits all the marks, while not sacrificing musicality or sentiment."

The contest was announced earlier this year by radio station WFMU and the Free Music Archive; to help publicize the winners, WFMU will pay for a full album of alternative songs to be sent to youth groups, restaurant chains, and other places people congregate to celebrate birthdays. All the songs are freely distributable and licensed under Creative Commons, with sheet music available at the announcement page. We're not optimistic they'll replace "Happy Birthday to You" in the collective consciousness, but the chances probably aren't much worse than trying to actually shorten copyright terms.