In response to the fifty or so emails that have asked: Yes, I’ve seen the very funny take on This Land Was Made for You and Me from the folks over at JibJab. The only reason I haven’t mentioned it is because by the time I got around to writing an entry about it everyone else and their brother had already written entries about it and I figured most folks would’ve already heard about it. All I could’ve added would be something like: “Hee hee! It’s funny!” Which isn’t exactly a stunning insight of any kind so I figured I’d just keep my mouth shut.
What is more interesting is the fact that the clueless assholes at The Richmond Organization, which owns the copyright to Woody’s classic tune via their Ludlow Music unit, are getting all pissy about JibJab’s bit o’ parody and are threatening to sue them for it.
“This puts a completely different spin on the song,” said Kathryn Ostien, director of copyright licensing for the publisher. “The damage to the song is huge.”
TRO believes that the Jibjab creation 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 publisher wants Jibjab to stop distribution of the flash movie.
You have got to be fucking kidding me. Granted that the “parody as fair use” defense is still largely a legal gray area, it’s has been recognized as a valid argument by the Supreme Court and based on some of the past cases I’d find it very surprising if the JibJab creation wasn’t able to withstand a legal challenge. More to the point, however, is the fact that the actions of The Richmond Organization would probably have pissed off Woody Guthrie to no end. ***Dave points us to a follow up article about Woody and a standard copyright notice he used to place on his works:
“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.”
It’s also telling that the original song as penned by Woody Guthrie in 1940 included controversial verses that are rarely sung today as they appear to be criticisms of ownership of private property and class inequality. Then there’s the other variations that sprung up both from Guthrie and other authors from time to time. Reading up on Guthrie and his political stance it’s hard to imagine he’d be all that upset with JibJab’s take on his classic tune—if anything he’d probably approve of it—but that doesn’t stop the folks who hold the copyright today from singing a different tune.
And that’s my biggest problem with copyright law as it stands now: It’s all about the money. To hell with what the original artists’ intent or opinions on the issue happened to be, the rule of the day is to snatch up what you can and defend it at all costs lest you miss out on a royalty payment. There’s a reason that restaurants never sing “Happy Birthday” to customers and have to come up with their own ridiculously cheesy birthday songs when presenting you with your free slice of cake and helping of public humiliation. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal if the term for copyrights were still limited to the original 28 years (14 years with an option for another 14 years if the author were still alive at the end of the first 14) before moving into the public domain that was established in the Copyright Act of 1790. That would allow for a good two decades for people and companies to make money off of a copyright before becoming public domain and free for anyone to make use of. For that matter, the term established in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in 1886 of the life of the author plus fifty years wouldn’t be too bad. This Land would still be under copyright until 2017 (Guthrie died on October 3, 1967 – just months after I was born).
The problem is our government keeps extending the limit whenever a big conglomerate such as the Walt Disney Company is in danger of its long-held copyrights expiring. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another 20 years to the limit making the new terms equal to the life of the author plus seventy years, in the case of individual works, and ninety-five years in the case of works of corporate authorship. Disney’s Mickey Mouse would have entered into the Public Domain sometime between 2000 and 2004 without this new legislation, something Disney wasn’t about to allow if they could help it. At least not in America. In Russia and many other countries Mickey Mouse along with any other copyrighted work prior to 1970 are considered to be in the Public Domain. The following bit from the Wikipedia on Copyright pretty much says it all:
- As a consequence of the act, no copyrighted works will enter into public domain due to term expiration in the United States until January 1, 2019, when all works created in 1923 will enter into public domain.
In addition to Disney, Sonny Bono’s widow and Congressional successor Mary Bono and the estate of George Gershwin supported the act. Mary Bono, speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, noted that “Sonny wanted the term of copyright protection to last forever”, but that since she was “informed by staff that such a change would violate the Constitution”, Congress might consider Jack Valenti’s proposal of a copyright term of “forever less one day”.
And people wonder why I think Jack Valenti is an asshat. It’s all about the money anymore and I bet Woody Guthrie would probably write a protest song about it if he were still around to do so. The fact is the Founding Fathers fully intended that copyright should expire after a reasonable time in order for the public to expand upon and innovate new ideas from formerly protected works and they considered this so important that they made it a part of the Constitution right from the beginning. How much do you want to bet that Disney and other groups will try to get the terms extended again when Mickey Mouse once more approaches the brink of becoming Public Domain?