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In June 1940 at an oil workers’ strike in Oklahoma City, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were asked to do what they did best - get the crowd singing at the next day’s rally. A labor organizer’s wife particularly wanted to know if Guthrie knew any songs about union women. Mr. Seeger recalls that the next morning he heard the tap-tap-tapping of Guthrie’s typewriter. When Guthrie came down for breakfast, he had two verses and the now-famous chorus for “Union Maid”:
Legislation now in Congress to extend the copyright law threatens to make it more difficult for this nation’s creativity to become part of our cultural landscape, part of a common heritage of folklore circulating freely in the public domain. Paradoxically, one corporation leading the charge is among the greatest appropriators of folk culture: Disney.
For his animated features “Snow White” and “Cinderella,” Walt Disney drew on folktales that had been passed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years. Now the Walt Disney Company, along with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or Ascap, and the Gershwin Family Trust, is among those lobbying Congress to add 20 more years of copyright protection to the law. With millions of dollars at stake each year, they are intent on keeping “intellectual property “ like Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain.
The Founding Fathers introduced the principle of copyright into Article 1 of the Constitution but were careful to note that it should last “for limited times.” The first copyright law, in 1790, guaranteed 14 years of protection with a 14-year renewal. But the period of protection has been extended several times since. For an individual today, a copyright now lasts for the life of the artist plus 50 years. For a corporation, a copyright lasts 75 years.
The time period was last extended in 1976, when many valuable copyrights were about to expire. The new extension would prevent any “works of authorship” from going into the public domain for 20 years. Indeed, the powerful entertainment industry seems intent on never allowing copyrights to expire, repeatedly lobbying for extensions at the 11th hour.
The 20-year extension (now named the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. When the bill was first proposed in Congress in early 1997, sponsors described it as a win-win situation, and proponents wondered who, if anyone, could oppose it.
Who? The public, in the broadest sense. We the people.
Dennis Karjala, a law professor at the University of Arizona [sic actually it is Arizona State Univeristy], has noted that under the new law our roly-poly Santa Claus, originally created by the 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast, would not have gone into the public domain until 1973. Even the United States Government would have had to pay royalties to use Nast’s Uncle Sam in all of his century’s wars.
Just as Uncle Sam and Santa eventually became part of the public domain, available for anyone to use in any season, so eventually should Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny take their places in our free-to-all pantheon of cultural icons.
Traditional singers, storytellers and quilters borrow freely from one another. No one owns the copyright to their material. In fact, folklorists have often found themselves in the somewhat contradictory role of helping traditional artists to copyright their work so they are assured of making an honest living from it.
Early in this century, Alan Lomax — going against the opinion of many folklorists that traditional songs should not be copyrighted — took what was later to become the controversial step of copyrighting songs like Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” and Honey Boy Edwards’s “Worried Life Blues” in both his own and the artist’s name. He argued that record companies would never track down artists like Edwards in the Mississippi Delta to pay royalty checks.
No folklorist today would argue that an artist should not reap the rewards of his labor. Yet folklorists, along with folk artists, are equally cognizant of the value of a fertile public domain. It is the nurturing ground for folk culture, from which songs and stories are drawn in the first place and to which they should, half a century after the artist’s death, return.
Proponents of the current legislation argue that an artist’s creations are a form of property that should be handed down to his or her descendants as a form of wealth. But to treat all creative expression as a form of capital that cannot be recycled, reused or built upon without paying fees to the artist’s decedents more than 50 years after the artist has died stifles cultural creativity.
Ultimately, it does more for the longevity of the art, and the memory of the artist, to assure that at some point the work receives the extra push of circulating royalty-free.
Some of those arguing for the extension of the copyright law have already given us glimpses of how tight their grip on their properties would be. In 1995, Ascap demanded that royalties be paid by Girl Scout camps for songs sung around the campfire. The absurdity of this reached its height when a troop of Scouts at a day camp in California, afraid of being charged a fee, danced the Macarena in silence. Ascap soon backed down.
A few years earlier, Disney had engendered a similar public relations nightmare when it tried to charge a day care center in Florida royalties for painting Mickeys and Plutos on the walls.
Like Disney, Ira and George Gershwin drew on folklore and oral tradition for their masterpiece, “Porgy and Bess.” Today, the Gershwin Family Trust points out that the copyright extension is not only about money but also about control of how a work is presented. A co-trustee, Marc G. Gershwin, was quoted in a recent news article as lamenting, “Someone could turn ‘Porgy and Bess’ into rap music.” The work of the Gershwin brothers drew on African-American musical traditions. What could be more appropriate?
If corporations thought they could get away with it, they might charge a few cents every time we copied a cartoon to distribute in the office or hummed a song in the shower. A penny for your thoughts? No, it’s part of our role in life to make songs and stories our own, to transform pop culture into what the sociologist Gary Fine calls idioculture, the idiosyncratic adaptation of mass culture that occurs in families and communities. An authentic cultural democracy, Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard have noted, “requires active participation in cultural life, not just passive consumption of cultural products.”
In his introduction to “Rise Up Singing,” the classic sing-along collection used by many camps and Scout troops, Pete Seeger writes, “Change a word, add a verse... Plan for improvisation.” The interests of songwriters and screenwriters and the corporations they work for have to be balanced against the importance of our collective folk culture. As Mr. Seeger put it from his home in Beacon, N.Y., “The grandchildren should be able to find some other way to make a living, even if their grandfather did write ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.’”