One of the funniest internet parodies to appear this campaign season is “This Land!” which uses Woody Guthrie’s familiar folk song to criticize the superficial insults which are being thrown right, left, and center in this election cycle. Using photo montage cutouts of Bush, Kerry, and other political leaders, it makes fun of many of the rhetorical devices that are being overused in the war of words between the candidates. Bush calls Kerry a waffler and a weenie, while Kerry pulls out his purple hearts whenever he is at a loss for words. It is so dead on that it has gotten widespread circulation and media coverage.
It would seem the only people who are not amused are the fine folks at Ludlow Music, who claim ownership over the copyright to the Guthrie song and have sent a cease and desist letter to JibJab, the group that is circulating the video. Ludlow argues that the video is not protected under parody law because it does not parody the song itself but uses it to parody other things. (This is a fine legal distinction that reflects the contorted state of current IP law.) Of course, as Jesse Walker notes over at Reason, it is not clear the current owners understand the song which they describe as “unifying” when Guthrie, a Marxist, saw it as a critique of 1930s policies that were dispossessing the common man and as a rebutal of sorts to “God Bless America.” Even if you read “This Land is Your Land” as a song about national unity, surely its use in a parody focused on partisan fragmentation and disunity makes a statement both about the song and about the difference between the two contexts.
As for Guthrie, he was a noted critic of all forms of private property, including his own intellectual property rights. He scrawled on the bottom of one of his song sheets the following disclaimer:
“This song is copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.”