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“This Land is Your Land” Copyright Case

The law firm that successfully sued to bring the song “Happy Birthday” into the public domain is now going after the copyright holders for “This Land is Your Land.” But the facts aren’t quite the same in this case.

On June 14, 2016, lawyers from the firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP, acting on behalf of their clients, a band known as Satorii, sued Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music (the Defendants) seeking a determination that the Defendants’ copyright claims regarding “This Land” are invalid, and for money damages. The complaint can be read here.

Note: Richmond Organization owns Ludlow Music, which is why both were named as defendants.

The lyrics for “This Land” were written by Woody Guthrie in 1940. The Plaintiffs claim that the music was taken from a gospel hymn from the late 19th or early 20th century, which, if true, would most likely put the melody in the public domain (meaning, it’s not subject to copyright protection and we all own it.)

Need a refresher on copyrights? Click here to listen to a podcast episode on copyright 101.

The gist of the complaint is as follows:

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.

Despite Guthrie’s 1945 publication of the Song, Defendant Ludlow purportedly copyrighted the Song 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.

A Bit About the 1909 Copyright Act

If you write a song today, there is no copyright renewal required. The copyright lasts as long as it lasts.

However, this only applies for works created on or after January 1, 1978 (which is when the 1976 Copyright Act went into effect.) When Guthrie was creating and performing his classic songs, the 1909 Copyright Act was in effect. The 1909 Act required that a copyright be renewed after 28 years. Failure to renew would result in the work entering the public domain.

The 1909 Act also required that proper notice be affixed when a work was published, whether in print, as an audio recording, or in another medium. The appropriate notice would look something like this: © 1945 Woody Guthrie.

The 1976 Act did away with this requirement; publication without notice will not destroy the copyright in a work produced after 1/1/1978.

OK, Back to the Lawsuit

The ins and outs of Guthrie’s casual approach to copyright law is described in detail in the complaint—I’ll skip all the details here, but it’s worth reading. However, Plaintiffs claim that even if a valid copyright applied in 1945, it was either destroyed by Guthrie’s failure to include a notice of copyright when the lyrics were published and the record was released, or by Guthrie’s failure to file a renewal.

Meanwhile, Ludlow filed an application to register the song in 1956, apparently with Guthrie’s permission. Ludlow failed to note in the application that the song has previously been published in a book and as an audio record. Also, the application claimed that Guthrie had written the music and lyrics, when, per Plaintiff’s allegations, he didn’t write the music at all. Finally, Ludlow allowed the music and audio recordings to be released from time to time without proper notice.

The Plaintiffs claim that each of these omissions was fatal to Ludlow’s copyright claim. They’re asking the court to rule that the song is not protected by copyright, and, as part of a class action, they are seeking repayment of all fees received by the Defendants for the last four years related to “This Land is Your Land.”

As with all of these types of cases, this matter is highly fact-specific. The court will have to review all of the relevant facts in order to determine whether or not the copyright claims are valid. Which means, at the very least, we’re all going to have the opportunity to learn a bit more about this great song.

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