Why Chain Restaurants Weren't Legally Allowed To Sing Happy Birthday To Customers

Cake with Happy Birthday candles
Cake with Happy Birthday candles - Oleksandr Sytnyk/Getty Images

Who doesn't love a birthday? What with the presents or the low-key gross tradition of blowing out candles on your birthday cake before serving it to guests. Or, if you're really lucky on your special day, you may even get the chance to be publicly humiliated at the restaurant of your choice by being sung at by employees against their will. If you've ever been victimized ... um, celebrated at your favorite restaurant, you may have noticed that nobody is singing the traditional happy birthday song. Instead, most chain restaurants have their own unique birthday song. But why? The answer involves money, of course!

The "Happy Birthday" song has a long and sordid history surrounding its copyright; up until 2016, the song could not be performed or played by restaurant chains without the purchase of a license. In essence, if an establishment like Applebees (who won't just serenade you but will also give you a free dessert on your birthday) wanted to sing the song to its customers, it would owe the "Happy Birthday" rights holder money each time it was performed. And that kind of thing is just bad for business, so restaurant-penned birthday songs became the only logical solution.

Read more: The Ultimate Ranking Of American Fast Food Restaurants

History Of The Birthday Song

Singing dog with microphone
Singing dog with microphone - Damedeeso/Getty Images

"Happy Birthday" didn't begin as a birthday song at all but was, in fact, written in the late 19th century as part of a musical project for children with limited abilities by Patty and Mildred Hill, two school teachers and sisters. The song's original lyric was "Good Morning," not "Happy Birthday". Later, it was speculated that, musically, the song was based on various pieces written by a piano company founder and composer from the mid-19th century, but even this can't be confirmed.

It would seem that, for a song with such ambiguous origins and undefined authorship, there shouldn't be such exclusivity surrounding its copyright and intellectual property, right? Wrong. As long as there's a dollar to be made, there's a racket to be paid, dear reader. For the following 100-odd years, the "Happy Birthday" copyright was held with Warner/Chappell Music, making tailor-made chain restaurant birthday songs a uniquely 20th-century cultural absurdity.

Chains That Jingle Jangle Jingle

Chuck E Cheese birthday celebration
Chuck E Cheese birthday celebration - Smith Collection/gado/Getty Images

Chili's is a wonderfully musical chain. Not only do they have that iconic baby-back ribs jingle, but maybe the best custom birthday song; when delivered with enough gumption and a couple of margaritas, this banger will make you feel like you've ascended a few dimensions. But Chilis isn't the only one with OG birthday song bragging rights. Restaurants like Red Robin and TGI Fridays have their own, too.

If you have children (or were a kid in the '90s or aughts), you'll probably never be able to get the Chuck E. Cheese birthday song out of your mind. The uncanny animatronic performance of Charles Entertainment Cheese himself and his musty cohorts demanding that you stomp your feet and clap your hands in birthday madness is a cherished memory for many. The original restaurant birthday song might be a relic of the 20th century -- especially now since, in 2016, the "Happy Birthday" song officially belonged in the public domain. This is all to say that the old original restaurant birthday songs are still holding on, but it's too bad we'll probably not be getting any original Red Lobster birthday song material in future generations. Imagine the possibilities!

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