A federal judge declared that a famous song about public property is still private property

Woody Guthrie originally wrote "This Land Is Your Land" as a kind of screed against the exploitations of private property ownership. When he submitted the song for copyright, Guthrie allegedly wrote that it was, "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." Although the copyright should have expired in 1973, the actual ownership of the rights has long been contested.

More recently, the lawyers who successfully returned "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" into the the Public Domain tried to take a similar approach to win back "This Land Is Your Land" for the people. Unfortunately, it didn't go as well. From The New York Times:

In the case, a young musical group called Satorii sued the song's publishers, Ludlow Music and the Richmond Organization, after paying $45.50 for a license to release a cover version of "This Land Is Your Land," which Guthrie wrote in 1940. In their complaint — filed by the same lawyers behind the "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" suits — the group used a detailed timeline of decades-old paperwork and Guthrie's own hand-decorated songbooks to argue that Guthrie had essentially forfeited his copyright to the song decades ago by failing to renew it properly.


On Friday, Judge P. Kevin Castel of Federal District Court in Manhattan […] ruled that there was no legal dispute for him to adjudicate: Satorii had already paid the license fee, and in exchange, the publisher had agreed to let Satorii do what it wanted with the song. The judge dismissed the case.

This is a disappointing result, particularly because the judge didn't make much of a ruling either way — he essentially threw it out on a technicality, because the plaintiffs tried to cooperate in order to employ the same strategy they had successfully used in similar cases.

Woody Guthrie's daughter, Nora, remains a joint owner of the song rights through Woody Guthrie Publications, despite her father's obvious wishes. "Our control of this song has nothing to do with financial gain," she argued in 2016. "It has to do with protecting it from Donald Trump, protecting it from the Ku Klux Klan, protecting it from all the evil forces out there." It's a nice sentiment, I guess, but it's also a frustrating one. (To her credit, she did let Billy Bragg and Wilco create the fantastic Mermaid Avenue Sessions from her father's archives, which is pretty great.) I'd be curious to know if noted Libertarian Arlo Guthrie agrees with this sister on this issue.

'This Land Is Your Land' Is Still Private Property, Court Rules [Ben Sisario / New York Times]

Top image via Public Domain