- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2016

More than 70 years after Woody Guthrie wrote “‘This Land is Your Land,” attorneys for an electronica group are going to court in hopes of having the rights to the folk classic deemed as inclusive as the country described by its lyrics.

A class action complaint filed Tuesday in Manhattan Federal Court on behalf of local band Satorii argues that Guthrie’s 1944 song “This Land is Your Land” should be brought into public domain.

Attorneys for Satorii claim the group paid $45.50 earlier this year in order to obtain the licensing rights needed to record a cover version of the Guthrie classic. As alleged in the lawsuit, however, any valid copyright associated with the song should have expired decades earlier.

“As artists, we respect the copyright protections afforded all creative works,” Satorii lead singer Jerrra Blues said in a statement released by attorneys at law firm Wolf Haldenstein. “However, those protections end at a certain point so that others can create their own new works. That’s one reason we create music, so that someday our work will be in the public domain for all to use.”

Guthrie wrote “This Land” in 1944, and included the composition in a songbook he published the following year in which he claimed ownership over that number and nine others. That copyright was never renewed by Guthrie, however, and as a result the song should have fell into the public domain no later than 1973, Satorii’s lawyers insist.

In the interim, publishing company Ludlow Music managed to copyright the song in 1956, and for 60 years has claimed to control the song’s reproduction, distribution and public performance rights under federal copyright law. In securing those rights, however, Satorii’s attorneys argue that Ludlow failed to acknowledge that the song had already been copyrighted by Guthrie more than a decade earlier, as well as the fact that Guthrie borrowed the melody from an antiquated gospel hymn he had heard previously.

“Irrefutable documentary evidence shows that Defendants own no valid copyright related to This Land. The popular verses of the Song were first published in 1945, and the copyright in those verses ended no later than 1973 (if not earlier),” the complaint alleges. “Defendants never owned a valid copyright to the Song’s pre-existing melody.”

Satorii’s attorneys have asked the courts to deem Ludlow’s copyright claim as invalid, enter the song into public domain and compel its current owner into refunding the $45.50 licensing fee paid by the band in order to record the song without risking legal action.

“There’s an imbalance in the Copyright Act. The statute does not protect artists from invalid copyright claims. We’re trying to fill that gap,” attorney Mark Rifkin said in a statement.

According to Guthrie’s son, however, existing copyright rules are in place for a reason.

“I am a firm believer that artists should be compensated for their work, and further that such compensation should be handed down to the family of that artist, which is the inherent intent of the artist to begin with - to provide a living for him or herself and their families,” Arlo Guthrie told Courthouse News, where the lawsuit was first reported this week.

“For me personally the latest attempt to make ‘This Land’ public domain is simply an effort of some who wish to profit on the works of others by looking for loop holes in the current copyright laws, thereby gaining a few extra years (the song will be public domain anyway eventually) where they can avoid licensing fees that help support the family of Woody Guthrie,” he said through his Facebook page.

Attorneys representing Ludlow did not immediately return Courthouse News’ requests for comment Wednesday.

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