August 24, 2004 | By Fred von Lohmann

This Song Belongs to You and Me

EFF has just announced that the JibJab suit has been settled. The resolution was a complete victory for JibJab, which will be entitled to continue distributing the "This Land" animation without further interference from Ludlow.

Two things made this outcome possible. First, JibJab's fantastic animation is a clear case of fair use, for the reasons described in detail in our earlier letter to Ludlow's attorney.

But also important was our other discovery: "This Land Is Your Land" has been in the public domain since 1973.

Fact #1: Guthrie wrote the song in 1940. At that time, the term of copyright was 28 years, renewable once for an additional 28 years. Under the relevant law, the copyright term for a song begins when the song is published as sheet music (just performing it is not enough to trigger the clock).

Fact #2: A search of Copyright Office records shows that the copyright wasn't registered until 1956, and Ludlow filed for a renewal in 1984.

Fact #3: Thanks to tips provided by musicologists who heard about this story, we discovered that Guthrie published and sold the sheet music for "This Land Is Your Land" in a pamphlet in 1945. An original copy of this mimeograph was located for us by generous volunteers who visited the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. For those who are not able to visit the Woody Guthrie Manuscript Collection at the American Folklife Archives, we've posted a copy of the document.

This means that the copyright in the song expired in 1973, 28 years after Guthrie published the sheet music. Ludlow's attempted renewal in 1984 was 11 years tardy, which means the classic Guthrie song is in the public domain. (I'll note that Ludlow apparently disputes this, although I've not heard any credible explanation from them.)

Thanks to everyone who expressed support for JibJab and to the many people who helped us to do the research that needed to be done regarding the history of the song.

So Guthrie's original joins the Star-Spangled Banner, Amazing Grace, and Beethoven's Symphonies in the public domain. Come to think of it, now that "This Land Is Your Land" is in the public domain, can we make it our national anthem? That would be the most fitting ending of all.


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