Monica Bral writes:

The rights to “This Land is Your Land”, one of America’s most famous folk songs, is in dispute. The outcome of a dispute about whether the song is in the public domain could change forever how this and potentially other historic songs are used.

On June 14, 2016, Plaintiffs James Saint-Amour and Alena Ileva, doing business as Satorii, a New York band, filed a class action lawsuit against Defendants, The Richmond Organization, Inc. and Ludlow Music, Inc. Satorii seeks a determination that “This Land is Your Land” is in the public domain. Once a work’s copyright term expires, it enters into the public domain and the public is free to use the song without obtaining permission from the prior copyright holders.

The melody of “This Land is Your Land” is based on a Baptist gospel hymn. Satorii alleges that Songwriter Woody Guthrie heard the hymn and copied the melody for “This Land is our Land.” Guthrie wrote the song’s lyrics in 1940 and copyrighted the song in 1945. Folkways Records published and copyrighted the lyrics in 1951.

This Land Is Our Land - waving flag and music
Copyright: AnnieAnnie / 123RF Stock Photo

Satorii brought this lawsuit to release a cover, create a derivative work, and produce a music video of “This Land is Your Land” without obtaining permission or providing compensation to Defendants. In its Complaint, Satorii ultimately alleges that the song is in the public domain. To prove this, Satorii asserts several different claims. First, Satorii alleges the song was never registered with the Copyright Office. Second, Satorii alleges that the song’s 28 year copyright term started in 1945 when Guthrie published the song and since it was never renewed, the song’s copyrighted term has long expired. Third, according to the Complaint, Folkway Records released a record player, which included a recording of “This Land is Your Land.” The lyrics were printed on the album notes and were published without the notice required under the law then in effect. Lastly, Ludlow applied for several other copyright claims including claims for an unpublished work, a derivative work, a published musical composition, and some words in the song.  Satorii asserts that these claims are invalid because Ludlow 1) failed to disclose the song was published by Guthrie in 1945 and the lyrics were published by Folkways in 1951; and 2) wrongfully identified Guthrie as the author of the song’s composition.

This lawsuit is brought by the same law firm, Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP, that fought for “Happy Birthday to You” to be in the public domain. Last year, the judge presiding over the “Happy Birthday To You” lawsuit held that the song was not legally owned by Warner/Chappell.  On June 28, 2016, the three year lawsuit finally ended when the judge approved the settlement between the parties. Warner/Chappell Music settled to refund $14 million in royalties and will no longer collect fees for others to use the renowned song.

Like the plaintiffs in the “Happy Birthday to You” lawsuit, Satorii in the “This Land is Your Land” lawsuit alleges that the song is not legally owned by Ludlow and is in the public domain. Since the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the “Happy Birthday To You” lawsuit, Satorii hopes to obtain a similar ruling – that the song is not legally owned by Ludlow and is thus in the public domain. Will the “Happy Birthday to You” lawsuit heavily sway the decision in the “This Land is Your Land” lawsuit? 

Monica Bral is a summer associate in the firm’s Los Angeles office.