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.

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A pair of musicians recorded every possible MIDI melody just to get around copyright law

Motherboard has an interesting new piece about musical copyright law, and the fact that there are only so many musical sequences using half-step frequencies possible. What happens when they're all used up, and the copyright trolls take everyone to court for any song that even remotely resembles another one, just by virtue of the fact that it relies on the same music theory?

Think about Lana Del Rey accidentally ripping off of Radiohead, who had accidentally ripped off of the Hollies. It's not crazy to write a song that goes from the I to the extra tension of a Chromatic Mediant III before resolving on a IV, which then walks down to a minor iv and returns to the tonic.

(Or, in simpler terms, as Motherboard puts it: Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" ripping off of Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down")

To get around the potential future copyright trolls, Damien Riehl and Noah Rubin developed a MIDI algorithm to automatically generate a series of melodies, then released those datasets into the public domain using a Creative Commons Zero license. The method for achieving this is pretty neat:

To determine the finite nature of melodies, Riehl and Rubin developed an algorithm that recorded every possible 8-note, 12-beat melody combo. This used the same basic tactic some hackers use to guess passwords: Churning through every possible combination of notes until none remained. Riehl says this algorithm works at a rate of 300,000 melodies per second.

Once a work is committed to a tangible format, it's considered copyrighted.

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The Smithsonian just released 2.8 million images into the public domain

The Smithsonian Institution has just released 2.8 million images (2D and 3D) into the public domain via a new Smithsonian Open Access online platform where anyone can browse and download high-res files. And then reuse them! Or remix them! For whatever! For free! From Smithsonian:

Featuring data and material from all 19 Smithsonian museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives and the National Zoo, the new digital depot encourages the public to not just view its contents, but use, reuse and transform them into just about anything they choose—be it a postcard, a beer koozie or a pair of bootie shorts.

And this gargantuan data dump is just the beginning. Throughout the rest of 2020, the Smithsonian will be rolling out another 200,000 or so images, with more to come as the Institution continues to digitize its collection of 155 million items and counting...

Spanning the arts and humanities to science and engineering, the release compiles artifacts, specimens and datasets from an array of fields onto a single online platform. Noteworthy additions include portraits of Pocahontas and Ida B. Wells, images of Muhammad Ali’s boxing headgear and Amelia Earhart’s record-shattering Lockheed Vega 5B, along with thousands of 3-D models that range in size from a petite Eulaema bee just a couple centimeters in length to the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant, estimated at about 29 light-years across.

Smithsonian Open Access Read the rest

Public Domain Game Jam: what games can you design with the bounty of 1924?

Randy Lubin (previously) writes, "New work is entering the public domain and Mike Masnick and I are hosting a game jam to celebrate. Designers have all of January to design analog and digital games about, inspired by, or remixing works from 1924. We have amazing judges, great prizes, and are excited to see what you make!" Read the rest

Happy Public Domain Day 2020!

Jennifer Jenkins from the Duke Center for the Public Domain writes, "January 1, 2020 is Public Domain Day! Works published in 1924 are entering the US public domain. They include George Gershwin’s 'Rhapsody in Blue' and 'Fascinating Rhythm,' silent films by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and Thomas Mann’s 'The Magic Mountain,' E. M. Forster’s 'A Passage to India,' and A. A. Milne’s 'When We Were Very Young.' These works were supposed to go into the public domain in 2000, after being copyrighted for 75 years. But before this could happen, Congress hit a 20-year pause button and extended their copyright term to 95 years. See what will (finally) be open to all!" Read the rest

Download hi-rez scans of all 435 illustrations from John James Audubon's Birds of America

The Audubon Society's tribute to John James Audubon's Birds of America (originally published between 1827 and 1838) features all 435 of Audubon's vibrant, beautiful portraits of the birds he studied, along with his notes on their behaviors and other characteristics (the site also includes audio samples of each bird's call). Read the rest

Kickstarting a deluxe "Dracula" edition in a suitcase full of "primary source materials" from the novel

Josh O'Neill writes, "We're doing a box set edition of Dracula in which we reconstitute the novel into the primary source documents from which it's drawn: Mina's diary, Lucy's letters, Dailygraph newspaper clippings, even an actual phonograph record from Dr. Seward. It comes in a suitcase. Or a wooden casket or stone crypt, depending on the edition." Read the rest

Library of Congress releases 11,700 freely usable photos of "roadside America," taken by John Margolies

For decades, architectural critic and photographer John Margolies obsessively documented roadside attractions: vernacular architecture, weird sculpture, odd businesses and amusements. By his death in 2016, his collection consisted of more than 11,000 slides (he published books of his favorites, with annotations). Read the rest

Data-mining reveals that 80% of books published 1924-63 never had their copyrights renewed and are now in the public domain

This January, we celebrated the Grand Re-Opening of the Public Domain, as the onerous terms of the hateful Sonny Bono Copyright Act finally developed a leak, putting all works produced in 1923 into the public domain, with more to follow every year -- 1924 goes PD in 2020, and then 1925, etc. Read the rest

National Parks Service publishes hi-rez scans of Heinrich Berann's iconic, panoramic paintings of America's parks

In the 1980s and 1990s, the National Parks Service commissioned Heinrich Berann to produce gorgeous, panoramic paintings of America's beautiful national parks as part of an advertising campaign; this week the NPS published high-resolution scans of these images for free downloading. Read the rest

Using machine learning to pull Krazy Kat comics out of giant public domain newspaper archives

Joël Franusic became obsessed with Krazy Kat, but was frustrated by the limited availability and high cost of the books anthologizing the strip (some of which were going for $600 or more on Amazon); so he wrote a scraper that would pull down thumbnails from massive archives of pre-1923 newspapers and then identified 100 pages containing Krazy Kat strips to use as training data for a machine-learning model. Read the rest

To do in LA this weekend: laugh your head off at PUBLIC DOMAIN THE MUSICAL at the Hollywood Fringe

Last night, I went to see Public Domain: The Musical at the Actor's Company Theater in West Hollywood. I had no idea what to expect, but I was prepared for the worst (I've been to shows at fringe festivals where I would have walked out in the first five minutes, except I was the only person in the audience), and I was totally wrong. I can't remember the last time I laughed that hard. Read the rest

The works of William James Sidis, the "smartest man who ever lived"

Hans Henrik Honnens de Lichtenberg writes, "Here is a fine selection of books by the extraordinary man, William James Sidis. A January morning in 1910 hundreds of students and professors gathered in the great lecture hall at Harvard University. On stage steps up William James Sidis to present his research about the mathematics of the fourth dimension. William was just eleven years old. William James Sidis was a genius and he still has the highest IQ ever recorded, somewhere between 250 and 300." Read the rest

Some pretty impressive machine-learning generated poetry courtesy of GPT-2

GPT-2 is Open AI's language-generation model (last seen around these parts as a means of detecting machine-generated text); it's powerful and cool, and Gwern Branwen fed it the Project Gutenberg poetry corpus to see what kind of poetry it would write. Read the rest

Stock art for a new Gilded Age

From Spitalfields Life, a scanned set of "elegant cartoons of Regency bankers from 1824 by Richard Dighton in the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute testify," in the public domain and perfect for contemporary stock art for pieces about late-stage capitalism, clueless billionaires, the corrupting influence of wealth, and all those other zeitgeisty subjects. Read the rest

Video and audio from my closing keynote at Friday's Grand Re-Opening of the Public Domain

On Friday, hundreds of us gathered at the Internet Archive, at the invitation of Creative Commons, to celebrate the Grand Re-Opening of the Public Domain, just weeks after the first works entered the American public domain in twenty years. Read the rest

Kickstarting a monthly zine that celebrates 1923 works that entered the public domain this year

This month, for the first time in a generation, America's public domain grew, as the 20-year freeze created by the 1998 changes to copyright law finally thawed. Read the rest

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