For a music fan, the quiz question, ‘Who wrote “This Land is Your Land”?’ might seem laughably easy. Yet if you answered ‘Woody Guthrie’, I’m afraid you only get half marks. Guthrie did write the lyrics, but following his normal practice he set them to an existing melody — in this case that of the Carter Family’s ‘When the World’s on Fire’, which they’d got from their friend Lesley Riddle, who may well have found it somewhere else. None of which, in 2004, stopped Guthrie’s copyright-holders from threatening a satirical website with a lawsuit when, like Guthrie himself, it put new words to the same tune.
And if that doesn’t sound shameless enough, try this. In 2000, the Rolling Stones were sued for having recorded unattributed versions of songs by the pre-war bluesman Robert Johnson, even though Johnson hadn’t written them either. He’d merely recorded unattributed versions of them — which under the 1976 copyright law now being retrospectively applied to the Stones’ 1960s work meant that he’d been as guilty of theft as they were. (Essentially the law stated that recording an uncopyrighted song was the same as publishing it — and several of Johnson’s songs had already been recorded by others.)
Nonetheless, the money still had to paid to Johnson’s ‘estate’. An old bloke called Claud, whose legal status as Johnson’s heir was established on the evidence of
the elderly Eula Mae Williams, a childhood friend of Claud Johnson’s mother, Virgie Jane Smith Cain… [who] testified that she had watched Cain and Robert Johnson having sex in a wooded area in… 1931, which, nine months later, led to the birth of Claud.
Clinton Heylin’s book is packed with examples such as these of what strange things can happen when popular music and copyright law collide.