Copyright Fight Over Woody Guthrie Classic

     MANHATTAN (CN) – The law firm that sought to bring “Happy Birthday” and “We Shall Overcome” into the public domain is now looking to do the same for the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land Is Your Land.”
     The Guthrie composition is the subject of the June 14, 2016, class action filed in Manhattan Federal Court against music publishers The Richmond Organization, Inc. and Ludlow Music, Inc.
     It was filed on behalf of James Saint-Amour and Alena Ivleva, members of New York progressive rock-techno fusion act Satorii, who want to release their own take on the beloved folk anthem.
     In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs note that “Guthrie published the Song in 1945 with a proper copyright notice, which created a federal copyright in the Song.”
     “The copyright to the 1945 publication was not renewed. As a result, the copyright expired after 28 years, and the Song fell into the public domain in 1973,” the complaint says.
     The plaintiffs call into question the validity of a purported copyright secured by defendant Ludlow Music in 1956.
     “Based on that 1956 copyright, Defendant Ludlow has wrongfully and unlawfully insisted it owns the copyright to ‘This Land,’ together with the exclusive right to
     control the Song’s reproduction, distribution, and public performances pursuant to federal copyright law,” the complaint says.
     As an example, they point to a letter Ludlow’s attorney wrote to Jib Jab Media, Inc. on July 23, 2004, regarding Jib Jab’s use of the song.
     “In that letter, Defendant Ludlow’s counsel asserted that “Ludlow is the exclusive copyright owner of the classic folk song ‘This Land is Your Land’ written by the well-known folk artist Woody Guthrie.”
     The letter also asserted that Jib Jab’s use of the song’s melody and “the well-known lyrics ‘This land is your
     land, this land is my land’ and ‘From California to the New York Island'” infringed Ludlow’s copyright, the complaint says.
     “Irrefutable documentary evidence shows that Defendants own no valid copyright related to This Land. The popular verses of the Song were first published in 1945, and the copyright in those verses ended no later than 1973 (if not earlier),” the plaintiffs claim. “Defendants never owned a valid copyright to the Song’s pre-existing melody.”
     Despite this, the plaintiffs say, the defendants have “demanded and extracted licensing fees from those
     unwilling or unable to challenge their false ownership claims.”
     As in other recent cases, in which the firm of Wolf Haldenstein Alder Freeman & Herz sought to have “Happy Birthday” and the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” declared to be in the public domain, the plaintiffs seek a determination that the defendants do not own the copyright to the song, and that they’ve improperly collected usage fees from the plaintiffs and other class members.
     The members of Satorii also seek restitution for the $45.50 mechanical license they paid to produce and distribute 500 copies of the song as a digital release.
     The folk singer Woody Guthrie, whose acoustic guitar was painted with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists,” wrote the “This Land is Your Land” in 1940 in response to his irritation at Irving Berlin’s composition “God Bless America.”
     When reached for comment through his verified Facebook page, Woody Guthrie’s son, musician Arlo Guthrie replied “I am a firm believer that artists should be compensated for their work, and further that such compensation should be handed down to the family of that artist, which is the inherent intent of the artist to begin with – to provide a living for him or herself and their families.”
     In regard to the Satorii lawsuit, Guthrie said “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.”
     The melody of “This Land” bares a strong resemblance to an 18th century Baptist hymn “When the World’s on Fire,” recorded ten years before Guthrie’s song by the iconic country/bluegrass group the Carter Family.
     In 1951, with Guthrie’s permission, Folkways Records released “This is My Land: A Collection of American Folk Songs,” a compilation that also featured Pete Seeger and Lead Belly. Folkways Records, a label found by Moses Asch and dedicated to the documentation of folk, world and children’s music, was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in 1987. The lawsuit claims the Folkways published Guthrie’s lyrics without any copyright notice.
     Arlo Guthrie frequently closes his concerts by playing a pair of his father’s songs, “This Land” and “My Peace,” joined by other Guthrie family members including Arlo’s daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie.
     According to the website Setlist.FM, “This Land” is frequently performed live by artists including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and other artists.
     The plaintiffs are represented by Randall Newman at Wolf Haldenstein Alder Freeman & Herz in New York, NY.
     Representatives of the defendants did not immediately respond a request from Courthouse News for comment.

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