This Song Was Their Song


As I mentioned in my column today, The Richmond Organization, which owns the copyright to Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," is threatening JibJab with a lawsuit over the latter's spoof of the song. Now it seems their case is even weaker than I suggested. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports:

Turns out Woody Guthrie lifted the melody of "This Land is Your Land" essentially note-for-note from "When the World's on Fire," a song recorded by country/bluegrass legends, The Carter Family, ten years before Guthrie wrote his classic song. Here's a short snippet (380k mp3) of the song (the song can be found on the box set, The Carter Family: 1927-34). You don't need to be a musicologist to hear what we're talking about.

Now we've got nothing against Woody's borrowing. In fact, it's a part of the "folk process" that Woody himself championed. I can't imagine that The Carter Family minded.

But in the letter threatening copyright litigation over JibJab's animated political parody, "This Land," Ludlow's lawyer goes out of his way to attack JibJab for copying "the entire melody, harmony, rhythm and structure of the [sic] Mr. Guthrie's song."

Er, sorry there Ludlow, but actually, the entire melody, harmony, rhythm, and structure of "This Land is Your Land" doesn't belong to you. And I'd like to think Mr. Guthrie would never have claimed credit for them, if he were still alive to ask.

The melody may be even older than that: A.P. Carter was notorious for claiming authorship of folksongs he didn't write. But it definitely didn't originate with Guthrie.

NEXT: Will Jasmine Trias be the Queen?

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  1. Imagine how few of the folk songs written in the 1930s-1960s would be around if today’s copyright rules and enforcement had been in place back then.

    The lawyers for the estate of some Delta bluesman would have shut down Guthrie and prevented the subsequent ’60s folk revival with claims on the “talking blues” vamp alone.

    More appealingly, Bo Diddley would have been one of the richest men in America by 1966.

  2. What would Arlo have to say about this?

  3. What was it that Stravinsky allegedly said?
    “Talent borrows, genius steals”?
    It has always been thus.

  4. Talk not of genius baffled, Genius is master of man. Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can.

    E. R. Bulwer-Lytton, Last Words (1860)

  5. I’m telling you folks, we need to put a match to the whole of copyrite law.

  6. Somebody tell the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the Carter Family wasn’t a “/bluegrass” band.

    I guess I just did, aw shucks.

  7. Believe it or not, Douglas, I thought about mentioning that in the blog entry, but decided that some points are too pedantic even for me. Thanks for picking up the slack. :>

  8. No problem, I’ll throw out an extra g-run for you at the jam tomorrow night…

  9. Oh no my alias is exposed.

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