Woody Guthrie is probably rolling over in his grave right about now.

In response to the fifty or so emails that have asked: Yes, I’ve seen the very funny take on This Land Was Made for You and Me from the folks over at JibJab. The only reason I haven’t mentioned it is because by the time I got around to writing an entry about it everyone else and their brother had already written entries about it and I figured most folks would’ve already heard about it. All I could’ve added would be something like: “Hee hee! It’s funny!” Which isn’t exactly a stunning insight of any kind so I figured I’d just keep my mouth shut.

What is more interesting is the fact that the clueless assholes at The Richmond Organization, which owns the copyright to Woody’s classic tune via their Ludlow Music unit, are getting all pissy about JibJab’s bit o’ parody and are threatening to sue them for it.

“This puts a completely different spin on the song,” said Kathryn Ostien, director of copyright licensing for the publisher. “The damage to the song is huge.”

TRO believes that the Jibjab creation threatens to corrupt Guthrie’s classic—an icon of Americana—by tying it to a political joke; upon hearing the music people would think about the yucks, not Guthrie’s unifying message. The publisher wants Jibjab to stop distribution of the flash movie.

You have got to be fucking kidding me. Granted that the “parody as fair use” defense is still largely a legal gray area, it’s has been recognized as a valid argument by the Supreme Court and based on some of the past cases I’d find it very surprising if the JibJab creation wasn’t able to withstand a legal challenge. More to the point, however, is the fact that the actions of The Richmond Organization would probably have pissed off Woody Guthrie to no end.  ***Dave points us to a follow up article about Woody and a standard copyright notice he used to place on his works:

“This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”

It’s also telling that the original song as penned by Woody Guthrie in 1940 included controversial verses that are rarely sung today as they appear to be criticisms of ownership of private property and class inequality. Then there’s the other variations that sprung up both from Guthrie and other authors from time to time. Reading up on Guthrie and his political stance it’s hard to imagine he’d be all that upset with JibJab’s take on his classic tune—if anything he’d probably approve of it—but that doesn’t stop the folks who hold the copyright today from singing a different tune.

And that’s my biggest problem with copyright law as it stands now: It’s all about the money. To hell with what the original artists’ intent or opinions on the issue happened to be, the rule of the day is to snatch up what you can and defend it at all costs lest you miss out on a royalty payment. There’s a reason that restaurants never sing “Happy Birthday” to customers and have to come up with their own ridiculously cheesy birthday songs when presenting you with your free slice of cake and helping of public humiliation. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal if the term for copyrights were still limited to the original 28 years (14 years with an option for another 14 years if the author were still alive at the end of the first 14) before moving into the public domain that was established in the Copyright Act of 1790.  That would allow for a good two decades for people and companies to make money off of a copyright before becoming public domain and free for anyone to make use of. For that matter, the term established in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in 1886 of the life of the author plus fifty years wouldn’t be too bad. This Land would still be under copyright until 2017 (Guthrie died on October 3, 1967 – just months after I was born).

The problem is our government keeps extending the limit whenever a big conglomerate such as the Walt Disney Company is in danger of its long-held copyrights expiring. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another 20 years to the limit making the new terms equal to the life of the author plus seventy years, in the case of individual works, and ninety-five years in the case of works of corporate authorship. Disney’s Mickey Mouse would have entered into the Public Domain sometime between 2000 and 2004 without this new legislation, something Disney wasn’t about to allow if they could help it. At least not in America. In Russia and many other countries Mickey Mouse along with any other copyrighted work prior to 1970 are considered to be in the Public Domain. The following bit from the Wikipedia on Copyright pretty much says it all:

    As a consequence of the act, no copyrighted works will enter into public domain due to term expiration in the United States until January 1, 2019, when all works created in 1923 will enter into public domain.

    In addition to Disney, Sonny Bono’s widow and Congressional successor Mary Bono and the estate of George Gershwin supported the act. Mary Bono, speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, noted that “Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever”, but that since she was “informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution”, Congress might consider Jack Valenti’s proposal of a copyright term of “forever less one day”.

And people wonder why I think Jack Valenti is an asshat. It’s all about the money anymore and I bet Woody Guthrie would probably write a protest song about it if he were still around to do so. The fact is the Founding Fathers fully intended that copyright should expire after a reasonable time in order for the public to expand upon and innovate new ideas from formerly protected works and they considered this so important that they made it a part of the Constitution right from the beginning. How much do you want to bet that Disney and other groups will try to get the terms extended again when Mickey Mouse once more approaches the brink of becoming Public Domain?

16 thoughts on “Woody Guthrie is probably rolling over in his grave right about now.

  1. Don’t forget the classic that we used to sing in grade school—which I just taught to my daughter, as they were making her learn the original in preschool:

    This land is my land
    It is not your land
    If you don’t get off
    I’ll shoot your head off
    I have a pistol
    And it is loaded …
    This land was made for only me.



  2. What the hell. Let’s make copyrights good for the author’s lifespan, plus the lifespan of everybody he ever knew, plus the lifespans of everybody who ever heard of those people, plus 800 years. Can’t wait to print my own Mickey Mouse T-shirts in 3178!

  3. I never realized how profound Guthrie’s original lyrics were:
    [Quote]Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
    A sign was painted said: Private Property,
    But on the back side it didn’t say nothing—
    This land was made for you and me.

    [Quote]One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
    By the Relief Office I saw my people—
    As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
    This land was made for you and me.

    JibJab could make a skit using the original lyrics that would be almost as accurate.

  4. Guthrie stole the melody off of the “Carter Family” a popular group of the day, and changed the words.  Which is exactly what JibJab is doing.

  5. Our version was slighly different after “I’ll blow your head off”

    “I got a shotgun…
    And you ain’t got none…
    This land was made for only me!”

    It needs to rhyme.

    See Les? You took a talked about topic and you gave it a twist with something to think about… you rule!

    (God, my childhood sucked!)

  6. Is it true that restaurants can’t sing the Happy Birthday song, or were you just being facetious? If so, who does on the copywrong?

    (People sing it here in Japan: “Happi ba-sudee tsu yuu…”)

  7. I was being completely serious. When was the last time you heard the staff of a restaurant sing it to someone? Check the credits of any movie it appears in and you’ll find it’s credited.

    But don’t take just my word for it, the wonderful folks at Snopes.com have an entry on it:

    The Chicago-based music publisher Clayton F. Summy Company, working with Jessica Hill, published and copyrighted “Happy Birthday” in 1935. Under the laws in effect at the time, the Hills’ copyright would have expired after one 28-year term and a renewal of similar length, falling into public domain by 1991. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 extended the term of copyright protection to 75 years from date of publication, and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another 20 years, so under current law the copyright protection of “Happy Birthday” will remain intact until at least 2030.

    Who does own the publishing rights to “Happy Birthday to You”? They were acquired by a New York accountant named John F. Sengstack when he bought the Clayton F. Summy Company in the 1930s; Sengstack eventually relocated the company to New Jersey and renamed it Birch Tree Ltd. in the 1970s. Warner Chappell (a Warner Communications division), the largest music publisher in the world, purchased Birch Tree Ltd. in late 1998 for a reported sale price of $25 million; the company then became Summy-Birchard Music, now a part of the giant AOL Time Warner media conglomerate. According to David Sengstack, president of Summy-Birchard, “Happy Birthday to You” brings in about $2 million in royalties annually, with the proceeds split between Summy-Birchard and the Hill Foundation. (Both Hill sisters died unmarried and childless, so the Hill Foundation’s share of the royalties have presumably been going to charity or to nephew Archibald Hill ever since Patty Hill passed away in 1946.)

    Com’on, Zack, you don’t think I’d pull a fast one on you, do you? wink

  8. Forever less one day? How does that work?
    Isn’t that not only a legal but also a mathematical oxymoron? If ‘forever’ is legally unconstitutional then surely everything pegged to it must also be unconstitutional by definition!
    Or mathematically: infinity minus n, where n is any finite number equals infinity!

    (“last” as in ‘made to …’ I hope!)

  9. Short answers: It doesn’t work and it is an oxymoron, but then so is Jack Valenti.

    captcha = “money”

  10. I am so confused..Years ago Weird Al used artists songs changed up some of the words without permission. At first they said no but he did anyway. Whats the difference?!20 records later Weird Al keeps on doing it with or without conscent. A bunch of nonsense.

  11. Actually that’s not true. Weird Al gets permission for every song parody he does. Taken from the Official “Weird Al” FAQ:

    Does Al get permission to do his parodies?

    Al does get permission from the original writers of the songs that he parodies. While the law supports his ability to parody without permission, he feels it’s important to maintain the relationships that he’s built with artists and writers over the years. Plus, Al wants to make sure that he gets his songwriter credit (as writer of new lyrics) as well as his rightful share of the royalties.

    What do the original artists think of the parodies?

    Most artists are genuinely flattered and consider it an honor to have Weird Al parody their work. Some groups (including Nirvana) claim that they didn’t realize that they had really “made it” until Weird Al did a parody of them!

    What about Coolio? I heard that he was upset with Al about “Amish Paradise.”

    That was a very unfortunate case of misunderstanding between Al’s people and Coolio’s people. Short version of the story: Al recorded “Amish Paradise” after being told by his record label that Coolio had given his permission for the parody. When Al’s album came out, Coolio publicly contended that he had never given his blessing, and that he was in fact very offended by the song. To this day we’re not exactly sure who got their facts wrong, but Al sincerely apologizes to Coolio for the misunderstanding.

    Have any artists ever turned Al down for a parody?

    Even though most recording artists really do have a pretty good sense of humor, on a few very rare occasions Al has been denied permission to do a parody. Actually, the only artist to turn Al down consistently over the years has been the Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Go figure.

    Is there going to be a music video for Poodle Hat?

    It seems very unlikely. As has been widely reported in the media, Al was planning to do a video for “Couch Potato

  12. As far as I know from my contact to the music biz
    you don’t really need any permission at all, as long as you pay the royalties!
    Any money made from music publishing is split 50/50 between writer and performer and nobody can stop you from any song as long as the writer gets his 50%! Of course with sampling you might run into good lawyers and you end up with nowt (the Stones, for example, have exceedingly good lawyers). So as long as the writer is credited and payed and you don’t sample it you can play what you like!
    Of course thats the situation in the UK, but I always understood these regulations to be international!
    To stop spoofs of your own work you’d have to invoke something like defamation, loss of earnings or something.
    In other words if you spoof someone it pays to be poor! At least in this country you can’t go to prison defamation (yet).Reminds me of a funny case here, a good few years ago: Some guy got annoyed by his bank, so he changed his last name to “Barclaysbankarefuckingbastards”. The bank tried to force him to close his account, but since that guy was living in a tiny village and no other bank had a branch there he actually won the case! Nothing to do with anything, just a (hopefully) funny story,especially since it made the national news here.

    Another thing: Why the hell should Coolio have a problem with Weird Al? I mean Coolio stole it himself and just changed a few words! The Original being “Pastime Paradise” by Stevie Wonder as far as I know.

    (“took” as in C. took S.‘s song and now thinks its his)

  13. This is the version I heard during childhood:
    This land is my land.
    It is not your land.
    I’ve got a shotgun,
    And you don’t got one.
    If you don’t get off,
    I’ll blow your head off.
    This land is mine and not yours.

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