"This Land" Update


One more followup to my column on the JibJab/"This Land Is Your Land" copyright dispute. You can now view the publisher's cease and desist letter on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's website. It makes for interesting reading, for two reasons:

1. it shows that the publisher is aware of the song's original message, though you wouldn't guess that from its spokeswoman's comments to the press; and

2. it complains that the JibJab film "copied the entire melody, harmony, rhythm and structure" of Woody Guthrie's song. As I mentioned on Hit & Run yesterday, "This Land" itself "copied the entire melody, harmony, rhythm and structure" of an earlier song by the Carter Family. I also speculated that the music might be even older than that, and sure enough, I read now on Ernest Miller's blog that it appeared previously in a Baptist hymn, "Oh My Lovin' Brother."

There's still the matter of Guthrie's words, which he did write himself. The JibJab movie actually includes only 13 of them, but, as Eugene Volokh wrote yesterday, "I suspect that the words used in this combination and this order are indeed copyrightable." Interestingly, the first draft of Guthrie's song did not use the line "This land was made for you and me"; instead he wrote "God blessed America for me," a poke at the song he was satirizing, "God Bless America." Alert the estate of Irving Berlin!


NEXT: The Late Saddam Hussein

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  1. Shakespeare was right.

  2. So was Larry Flynt.

  3. Indeed, we are informed that millions of viewers have already seen the work. As a result, Ludlow will lose substantial amounts of publishing income.

    Yeah, all those people who were lining up to buy “This Land” CDs will just download it off the internet!

  4. The issue of satire vs. parody vs. copyright violation is a very important one to people who do filk music. At one time, it was fairly routine to pay to use a tune and release a small-run tape with parody lyrics on it. Today, it’s considered legally unsafe to do that without explicit permission from the tune’s copyright holder. You can, on the other hand, record a previously released song with the original lyrics simply by paying a statutory royalty.

    I’ve written a parody of TLIYL myself, with this chorus:

    This land’s not your land,
    This land is my land.
    And you can’t take it,
    Go out and buy land.
    So don’t you come here
    With that bulldozer.
    Stay off, this land belongs to me.
    (“This Land Is My Land,” Copyright 2002, Gary McGath)

  5. One can only imagine what Woody himself would have said, who once used this as his standard copyright notice:

    “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.”


    Gary Denton

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