Copyright vs. folk music

Doron sez, "Folk musician Steven Arntson wanted to write a song that riffed on a Woody Guthrie's 'I Ain't Got No Home'. Guthrie's song was based on the Carter Family's 'This World Is Not My Home' which was in turn based on an old spirtual... Unfortunately Arnston is finding out that current copyright law does not allow for the creative give and take that was once a vital and basic part of music composition."

Sixty-eight years later, in 2008, I heard "Can't Feel and Home" and "I Ain't Got No Home," and felt the latter lyric connected well with some lyrics I was writing for what would become The Emerald Arms suite. I decided to arrange "I Ain't Got No Home" as the second movement. After creating the recording and sheet music of the entire work, I set out to discover whose permission I should ask before giving the suite away online as free recordings and a score.

Because the melody dates back to 1909, it's in the public domain (the current cutoff for which is 1923). Guthrie's lyric, on the other hand, is not. Two companies own different rights to it. The Richmond Organization (TRO) owns the rights to reproducing the song's sheet music and the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) owns the rights to reproducing sound recordings of the piece.

I approached TRO first, sending them the score I'd written for concertina and voice, which contains many annotations specific to my purpose as well as modifications to the tune's melody and chords. A few weeks later I received a letter from TRO. "We are enclosing our music copy of I AIN'T GOT NO HOME," they wrote, "and request that you use the "words and music" from the enclosed copy in your book." The following page contained a photocopy of the melody line of Woody's lyric from what looked like a children's book, accompanied by a cartoon of a guy's butt protruding from the front door of a house.

The Absent Second: An Explanation

(Image: Woody Guthrie, half-length portrait, seated, facing front, playing a guitar that has a sticker attached reading: This Machine Kills Fascists, Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)


  1. This has been a dinner-party polemic of mine for years — copyright kills the process of folk music — which is building on and adapting the work of your forebearers.

    1. All music is building on and adapting the work of your forebearers.

      Some music is a bit more obviously taking old music and changing it, but all music does this.

  2. Steve doesn’t appear to understand what Harry Fox does. They merely collect royalties and forward them to publishers (for a fee of $15 per license). They don’t own any rights. They process licenses for artists who record covers of songs that have already been recorded. I don’t think they would handle a derivative work like Steve’s.

    95 years is a ridiculous length of time for a copyright to exist. Steve’s best bet is to either use the melody without the lyrics or partner with a lyricist to write new words.

    The positive spin is that limitations often inspire artists to find creative ways to do what they want. It’s just a shame when that limitation is imposed by the government for a period that lasts nearly a century.

  3. The Incredible String Band snuck in a taste of Woody’s song toward the end of their nine-minute “Ducks on a Pond” (Wee Tam 1968): “Farewell sorrow. Praise God the open door. I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.” Did they steal the riff? Probably. Does anyone care? I doubt it.

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