This Song Is Our Song? Copyright Spat Over Guthrie Classic
June 17, 2016 (IP Flow) — Following their successful actions to bring the songs “Happy Birthday” and “We Shall Overcome“ into the public domain, New York law firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz are now taking on a similar action for the Woody Guthrie classic, “This Land Is Your Land.”
The firm filed a class action suit on June 14 in Manhattan against music publishers The Richmond Organization, Inc. and Ludlow Music, Inc., on behalf of music group Satorii, who has recorded two versions of the song they wish to release.
The suit claims that the song belongs in the public domain and not to the music publishers, who have been collecting royalties on the song for years. They argue that Woodie Guthrie registered and thus commenced federal copyright in the song in 1945. Furthermore, the copyright was not renewed, and therefore entering the public domain in 1973.
On this basis, the action challenges Ludlow Music assertion that they acquired the copyright to the song in 1956 and asserts that they have wrongfully and unlawfully been collecting royalties. As proof, the firm points to a letter and lawsuit brought against JibJab Media for a parody created using the song, in which Ludlow Music asserted in writing that the company is indeed the sole copyright holder. The case was ultimately settled out of court and an agreement whereby JibJab could continue to distribute their parody without any further hassle from Ludlow was made.
However, Guthrie’s son, Arlo, has been very vocal in his beliefs that artists should be justly compensated for their works and stated:
For me personally the latest attempt to make ‘This Land’ public domain is simply an effort of some who wish to profit on the works of others by looking for loop holes in the current copyright laws, thereby gaining a few extra years (the song will be public domain anyway eventually) where they can avoid licensing fees that help support the family of Woody Guthrie.
It remains to be seen whether Ludlow can produce evidence to refute these claims. Although, it seems unlikely that anything that is produced will be particularly persuasive, as hard documentary evidence and the federal copyright notice filed by Woody Guthrie have already been put forward by the firm, which has an excellent track record with these cases.