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July 27, 2004

Mocking Woody Guthrie's Memory

The late, great Woody Guthrie is surely spinning in his grave today, in fury over what is happening with one of his most memorable songs, "This Land is Your Land."

But Guthrie would not be even slightly unhappy at the use of his immortal tune by the JibJab folks, whose brilliant satire of George Bush and John Kerry has become one of the most popular animations ever to hit the Web or any other medium.

No, Guthrie would be thrilled. He was a folk singer. Like all other folk singers he borrowed from others to create his art. As his son, Arlo, once said:

"We've heard some of the people talk about some of the songs he wrote tonight. And the truth is, he did steal old songs from other places. He took the old gospel songs, he took the old traditional ballads, and he put his words to them like we heard tonight. People still called it stealing. Plagarism, bad words like that, 'til Pete Seeger come along and renamed it the folk process. I think my dad's theory was that if you wanted people to be singing along with you on your new song, it'd be a hell of a start if they already knew the tune. Or even some of words."
Woody Guthrie wrote scathingly of people who steal more with fountain pens than guns. He would have loathed the people who abuse copyright so much today, trying to restrict all kinds of fair use, of which parody is an absolutely protected example.

And I'll bet, therefore, that he'd be horrified -- and angered -- by the behavior of an outfit called The Richmond Organization, which controls the copyright to his music. This humor-impaired crew has gone ballistic and has launched legal threats (CNN) at JibJab.

The Richmond Organization is dishonoring Woody Guthrie's memory, not that it seems to care. But it's giving us one more example of how the copyright system has abandoned common sense.

Posted by Dan at July 27, 2004 06:24 PM


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