The song, This Land is Your Land, by Woody Guthrie, has been at the center of a controversy regarding a political parody/ satire web animation that rewrote the lyrics and used the music. However, it now seems that JibJab, which hosted the animation, will not be prevented from using the song because although Ludlow Music claimed copyright infringement, it does not have a copyright in the song any more.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) did extensive research on the copyright, finding that
Woody Guthrie published a songbook in 1945 that included "This Land Is Your Land." At that time, copyright holders owned their work for 28 years, and could renew the copyright once during the first term, for another 28 years. . . .Guthrie never renewed it, meaning the terms of the copyright expired in 1973.
Ludlow, meanwhile, registered the song under copyright in 1956 as an original copyright registration, not as a renewal. The company was apparently unaware that because Guthrie had already published the song, the terms of copyright began in 1945, not 1956....
Ludlow then renewed the copyright in 1984, 11 years too late..... The EFF found a copy of the songbook at the Library of Congress.
Lesson: Check if you actually own a copyright before sending a cease and desist letter. If you get a cease and desist as an individual or as a library, check to see if the copyright has lapsed. In 2000, NPR knew that "This Land is Your Land"
was written in 1940 and recorded in 1944. Guthrie himself may have had no problem with the use of the song -- if he was still alive and owned the copyright. According to the Museum of Musical Instruments, Guthrie wrote on at least one of his songbooks:
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."
Beyond this, there is the issue of copying/borrowing from earlier sources. The folk music tradition in which "This Land is Your Land" was created would not raise the issue -- but this is an issue within copyright law. According to
EFF(which includes musical samples),
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.
Copyright law does not truly fit situations like this where collaboration leads to the production of music -- and other creative works.
This case started when JibJab received a cease-and-desist letter (in PDF). In response, JibJab refused to remove the animation and asked the court to issue a opinion that the song was being used for satirical purposes and therefore it could be used without having to get the permission of the owner.
The issue of whether the use of the song was a parody, satire, or general fair use -- all with different legal consequences -- will now not be decided.