Jabbing JibJab

Copyright law vs. political satire


It seems like every blog and e-mail list has linked to This Land!, that corny but funny cartoon where John Kerry and George W. Bush trade insults to the tune of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." At this point, you can measure how much time someone spends online by how long it takes him to find the film and forward you the URL. Everyone eventually does. It's merely a matter of time.

The cartoon has even reached the offices of The Richmond Organization, the publisher that owns the rights to Guthrie's song. The outfit is not pleased, and it has threatened JibJab, the company run by This Land! animators Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, with a lawsuit. According to CNN, the publisher thinks the animation "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 company wants the Spiridellis brothers to stop distributing the movie.

Nothing says more about the awful state of copyright law today than the fact that this threat actually carries some legal weight. In the 1997 case Dr. Seuss Enterprises v. Penguin Books, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that The Cat NOT in the Hat!, a book by "Dr. Juice" that recounted the O.J. Simpson trial in the style of The Cat in the Hat, violated the Seuss estate's copyright. Ordinarily the fair use doctrine permits parody, but in this case the court was unmoved: This was a satire, it ruled, not a parody. A parody would be a commentary on the Seuss book, it explained, whereas this borrowed Seuss's creation to mock something completely different. The obvious retort—that it was a parody of both—didn't carry any water. The book was banned.

The same reasoning could easily apply to the JibJab film. As lawblogger Chris Cohen has commented, the video "would likely be considered satire," not parody, "because the video does not directly target the original song. The clear target here is Bush and Kerry or politics/society in general."

As with the Dr. Juice book, you can make a case that the animation parodies the song as well as the campaign. Another lawblogger, Ernest Miller, perceptively argues that the film is "a paradigmatic case of parody," noting that it

undermines virtually every element of the original meaning of Guthrie's song. Where Guthrie's song is provocative understatement, JibJab's is merely provocative. Where Guthrie's song is one of unity, JibJab's version both mocks and ultimately supports that ideal. In a year in which the red/blue divide is frequently debated, Guthrie's call for unity would seem to be ripe for this sort of parody. Guthrie was a supporter of communism, but his America has become consumerist (which JibJab notes perfectly). Guthrie sang songs to raise political consciousness, JibJab mocks political consciousness.

But with the awful Seuss decision as a precedent, the filmmakers still have plenty of room to worry. In the press or the academy, it's considered normal for more than one interpretation of a piece of art to coexist. In a courtroom, only one interpretation will enjoy the blessing of the law, and there's no guarantee that a judge playing critic for a day will agree with Miller's subtle analysis.

What makes this especially ridiculous is the fact that the publisher threatening the suit doesn't seem very familiar with the authorial intent it's allegedly defending. "Guthrie's unifying message" has already been corrupted quite a bit over the years, given that "This Land Is Your Land" was a Marxist protest song originally written as an answer to "God Bless America." If it's Guthrie's message that moves you, then reflect on two verses that most singers leave out:

As I went rumbling that dusty highway
I saw a sign that said "private property"
But on the other side it didn't say nothing
This side was made for you and me

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office, I see my people
And some were stumbling and some were wondering
If this land was made for you and me

Hardly anyone sings the last verse anymore. Some performers do include the one before it, but they usually substitute the phrase "no trespassing" for "private property." If you're going to accuse the Spiridellis brothers of corrupting Guthrie's message, you'd be better off ignoring their political jabs and jumping to the end of the movie, when Kerry and Bush throw their arms around each other and declare they're for unity after all. That doesn't quite square with Guthrie's attitude towards politicians.

At any rate, this is hardly the first time Guthrie's song has been parodied, and there's no reason to believe that this take-off is any more likely to destroy the tune's reputation than the others. When I was a boy, I usually eschewed the original "This Land" in favor of the version I learned on that great transmission belt of folk songs, the playground:

This land ain't your land, this land is my land
I've got a shotgun, and you ain't got one
I'll blow your head off if you don't get off
This land is private property

I don't think Woody would have approved, but I don't think he would have threatened a lawsuit either. This is a man who once, in lieu of the ordinary copyright notice, offered this: "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."

Did you hear the man? That song was made for you and me.