Woody Guthrie published “This Land” in 1945.
The lawyers who successfully got “Happy Birthday” put into the public domain and then sued two months ago over “We Shall Overcome” have a new target: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land.”
Randall Newman and his colleagues have filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against The Richmond Organization (TRO) and Ludlow Music, the two entities that also claim to own the copyright for “We Shall Overcome.”
The new suit is filed on behalf of a Brooklyn, New York-based band, Satorii, which obtained a license (at $45.40 for the privilege) to record a version that they sell as a download. However, the band has recorded another version with a different melody, and the musicians are concerned that they’ll be sued over it.
According to the “This Land” suit, the melody of the song is actually a Baptist hymn from the late 19th or early 20th century, often referred to as “Fire Song.”
As the complaint states:
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.
In addition to the “This Land” suit, Newman filed an amended complaint against TRO and Ludlow regarding “We Shall Overcome” on Friday. Newman later told Ars that his firm isn’t making a point of suing over songs that they feel should be in the public domain.
“Certainly if someone brought [a song] to our attention we would [look into it], but I’m not aware of any other songs at this point,” he said. “People have bought stuff that I’ve looked into and didn’t agree with them.
From the 1930s to the 1960s there was a lot of copyright fraud going on. You had people trolling the South and copyrighting songs that they didn’t write—they had heard because people in the South were not familiar with copyright laws and their rights, so it happened a lot, in my opinion. You’re not going to see that with Beyoncé, you know what I mean?”
TRO did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
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