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'Happy Birthday' song to be sold to Warner Communications

PRINCETON, N.J. -- 'Happy Birthday to You,' one of the world's most popular songs, is being sold along with the estimated $1 million a year in royalties it generates to media giant Warner Communications Inc., it was disclosed Tuesday.

Warner's Chappel division, the world's largest music publisher, will acquire 'Happy Birthday' and the rest of Birch Tree Group Ltd.'s music catalogue in a deal expected to close soon after the first of the year, Warner said.

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The company declined to disclose the price of the transaction. A source close to the deal said, however, that the price was below the $25 million cited in a published report but higher than the $12 million estimate of the company's worth floated when Birch Tree was put up for sale in October.

Birch Tree, located in Princeton, holds the 70-year U.S. copyright on 'Happy Birthday to You,' which expires in 2010. The owner of the song is able to collect about $1 million a year in royalties on commercial uses, such as in sheet music or television shows, Birch Tree has said.

Birch Tree now is owned by David Sengstack of Princeton whose father, John F. Sengstack, a New York accountant, purchased a Chicago sheet music retailer that published the birthday song.

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Sengstack, reached at home Tuesday, confirmed that there is an agreement in principle to sell Birch Tree, but declined to name the buyer or disclose the price.

'It's not done yet. The closing hasn't occurred,' he said.

Birch Tree executives have said that the company is too small to do a thorough job of monitoring commercial uses of 'Happy Birthday to You' and extracting royalties for those uses.

Commercial uses of the song have 'exploded' with new semiconductor chip technology of the sort that allows the ditty to be played when a birthday card is opened, Warner spokesman Jeffrey Holmes said.

Warner is equipped with computer capacity and other resources to track uses of the song more efficiently, Holmes said.

'We're always interested in adding to our music publishing business,' he said. 'Birch Tree is a very nice company. They have exploited the birthday song very well. It's not necessarily that Warner will exploit it better, but we will exploit it less expensively. We already have the computer capacity.'

'Happy Birthday to You' was written by sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill, kindergarten and Sunday school teachers from Louisville, Ky., in 1893. It was originally called 'Good Morning to All' and had lyrics along those lines. The birthday words were added later.

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The Guinness Book of World Records lists the song as one of the three most popular ever written in English, along with 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow.'

About 1,700 of Birch Tree's 50,000 song titles are actively used, but none is nearly so popular or lucrative as the birthday song, a company executive said. The company also owns the Suzuki method, an instructional method for violin, cello and viola, and the Francis Clark library for piano students. Those are included in the Warner deal, Holmes said.

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