No Safe Harbor: This Gene is Your Gene

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“This gene is your gene,” sang Francis Collins, playfully reworking an old Woody Guthrie song, with electric guitar in hand. “This gene is my gene,” he continued, backed up by the lumbering roar of a middle-aged rock band. This was no ordinary club gig; he was singing at a post–press conference party for scientists. Collins was the man who headed up the Human Genome Project (HGP), funded by the National Institutes of Health, and he was trying to make an ethical and political point. Since the mid-1990s, Collins' HGP had raced against a private effort to map the human genome in order to make our genetic information freely accessible, not privately owned and patented by a handful of corporations. Any scientist could examine HGP’s genome map for free - unlike the Celera Genomics’ privately owned draft, which was published with strings attached.[1] Over the din, Collins chided his competitors in song by genetically modifying Guthrie’s lyrics: This draft is your draft, this draft is my draft, And it’s a free draft, no charge to see draft. It’s our instruction book, so come on, have a look, This draft was made for you and me

Dr. Francis Collins reworked “This Land Is Your Land” to argue that genetic information should be freely available to the scientific community. However, his use of that Woody Guthrie song was sadly ironic, on multiple levels. “This Land Is Your Land” is a song written by an unabashed socialist as a paean to communal property: “This land was made for you and me.” Another key lyric goes, “A sign was painted ‘Private Property’ but on the backside it didn’t say nothin’.” The folk-song tradition from which Guthrie emerged valued the open borrowing of lyrics and melodies; culture was meant to be freely created and re-created in a democratic, participatory way.

If this was so, then why was Collins' use of “This Land Is Your Land” painfully ironic? Even though it was written over sixty years ago, the song is, to quote Woody Guthrie himself, still “private property.” Guthrie based the melody of “This Land Is Your Land” on the Carter Family’s 1928 recording “Little Darlin’ Pal of Mine,” which in turn was derived from a nineteenth-century gospel song, “Oh, My Loving Brother.”[2] This means that, in the twenty-first century, the publishing company that owns the late Guthrie’s music can earn money from a song about communal property, which was itself based on a tune that is over a century old. Far more disturbing, Guthrie’s publishing company prevents musicians from releasing altered, updated lyrical versions of that song. We won’t be hearing Collins' mutated “This Gene Is Your Gene” anytime soon.

What’s the connection, you might be wondering, between folk music and genetic research? Although obviously very different endeavors, the practitioners of both used to value the open sharing of information (i.e., melodies or scientific data). In these communities, “texts” were often considered common property, but today this concept has been fundamentally altered by the process of privatization, that is, the belief that shared public resources - sometimes referred to by economists and social scientists as the commons - can be better managed by private industries. And in recent years, there’s been a significant erosion of both the cultural commons and the genetic commons, resulting in a shrinking of the public domain. The fact that folk melodies and lyrics are now privately owned rather than shared resources is a depressing example of how our cultural commons is being fenced off. As for the genetic commons, the patenting of human and plant genes is but the furthest logical extension of privatization - taken at times to illogical lengths.


One year, I was taking a shuttle van back from the airport, glad to be back in Iowa City but exhausted from the Christmas holidays and feeling mute. However, I was alone with a driver who obviously wanted to chat, so I answered his questions about what I do. I mentioned my interest in music, which got the full attention of Jim Bazzell - the grizzled, fifty-something man behind the wheel. It turned out that Bazzell’s father had been in a band called Jimmy and the Westerners, one of the many country-music combos that roamed the land in the 1940s and 1950s. They once performed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and had their own radio show, though the group mainly made a living playing in honky-tonk bars around the Southwest.“My dad couldn’t read music and would play by ear,” says Bazzell. “I remember my mom would scramble to write down song lyrics as they came on the radio.” He chuckles, “Of course, she’d get a lot of ’em wrong because she couldn’t write as fast as they sang, so my dad would just make up the lyrics he didn’t know.”

This kind of improvisation used to be a common practice, especially in folk and country circles where lyrics and melodies were treated as raw materials that could be reshaped and molded in the moment. When writing my last book, for instance, I happened to be listening to a lot of old country music, and I noticed that six country songs shared the same vocal melody, including Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life.”[2] In his exhaustively researched book, Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ’n’ Roll, Nick Toches documented that the melody these songs used was both “ancient and British.” It’s unlikely that the writers of these songs simply ran out of melodic ideas and decided to pillage someone else’s music. It wasn’t artistic laziness. Rather, it’s probable that these six country songwriters, the majority of whom grew up during the first half of the twentieth century, felt comfortable borrowing folk melodies. They probably didn’t think twice about it.

This was also a time when more people knew how to play musical instruments, like Bazzell’s family, which performed small gigs at local hospitals and the like. His dad was proficient on fiddle and guitar -“any stringed instrument, really,” Jim says - and the kids learned to play at an early age, as did his mom. The stories he told reminded me of the song “Daddy Sang Bass,” which Carl Perkins wrote and Johnny Cash popularized. “Mama sang tenor,” the song’s chorus continued. “Me and little brother would join right in there.” It describes how the singer’s parents are now in heaven and how one day he’ll rejoin the family circle in song, concluding, “No, the circle won’t be broken...”

The chorus makes an overt reference to an important folk song that dates back to the nineteenth century: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which the Carter Family made famous. Starting in the 1930s, Woody Guthrie drew direct inspiration from a lot of songs associated with the Carter Family, recycling their melodies to write his own pro-union songs. For example, Guthrie wrote in his journal of song ideas: “Tune of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ -will the union stay unbroken. Needed: a sassy tune for a scab song.”

Guthrie also discovered that a Baptist hymn performed by the Carter Family, “This World Is Not My Home,” was popular in migrant farm worker camps, but he felt the lyrics were counterproductive politically. The song didn’t deal with the day-to-day miseries forced upon the workers by the rich and instead told them they’d be rewarded for their patience in the next life: This world is not my home I’m just a-passing through My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue The angels beckon me From heaven’s open door And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

The hymn could be understood to be telling workers to accept hunger and pain and not fight back. This angered Guthrie, so he mocked and parodied the original - keeping the melody and reworking the words to comment on the harsh material conditions many suffered through. “I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-ramblin’ round,” he sang, talking about being a homeless, wandering worker who gets hassled by the police, rather than a subservient, spiritual traveler waiting for an afterlife door prize. Instead of looking to heaven - because “I can’t feel at home in this world anymore” - Guthrie wryly arrived at his song’s punch line: “I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”[3]

In 1940 Guthrie was bombarded by Irving Berlin’s jingoistic “God Bless America,” which goes, in part, “From the mountains to the prairies / to the oceans white with foam / God bless America, my home sweet home.” The irritated folk singer wrote a response that originally went, “From California to the New York Island / From the Redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters / God blessed America for me.” (Guthrie later changed the last line to “This land was made for you and me.”) Continuing with his anti-privatization theme, in another version of this famous song Guthrie wrote: As I was walkin’ - I saw a sign there And that sign said - no trespassin’ But on the other side . . . it didn’t say nothin’! Now that side was made for you and me!

He set the lyrics to a beautiful melody he learned from the Carter Family, giving birth to one of the most enduring (and endearing) folk songs of all time. Guthrie’s approach is a great example of how appropriation - stealing, borrowing, whatever you want to call it - is a creative act that can have a powerful impact. Before Guthrie, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, borrowed from popular melodies for their radical tunes, which were published and popularized in the Little Red Songbook. These songs also parodied religious hymns, such as “In the Sweet By-and-By,” which was changed to, “You will eat, by and by.”[4]

For Guthrie and many other folk musicians, music was politics. Guthrie was affiliated closely with the labor movement, which inspired many of his greatest songs; these songs, in turn, motivated members of the movement during trying times. That’s why Guthrie famously scrawled on his guitar, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Appropriation is an important method that creative people have used to comment on the world for years, from the radical Dada art of the early twentieth century to the beats and rhymes of hip-hop artists today. Guthrie drew from the culture that surrounded him and transformed, reworked, and remixed it in order to write moving songs that inspired the working class to fight for a dignified life. Instead of passively consuming and regurgitating the Tin Pan Alley songs that were popular during the day, Guthrie and other folk singers created culture in an attempt to change the world around them. They were truly part of a counterculture, not an over-the-counter culture.

Curious about the copyright status of Guthrie’s decades-old music, I called up Woody Guthrie Publishing and spoke to a very nice gentleman named Michael Smith, the general manager of the organization. He was clearly familiar with the folk-song tradition and obviously knowledgeable about Guthrie, but he nevertheless had a lot of trouble accepting the idea that copyright extension was a bad thing for art and culture. I was surprised when Smith told me that the song-publishing company that owns Guthrie’s music denies recording artists permission to adapt his lyrics. And I was shocked when Smith defended the actions of the company, called The Richmond Organization (TRO), even after I pointed out that Guthrie often altered other songwriters’ lyrics. “Well,” Smith explained, “he admitted to stealing, but at the time that Woody was writing . . .”He paused. “I mean, things have changed from Woody’s time.”

They certainly have. During the 2004 election season, a year after I spoke to Michael Smith, a small-time team of cartoonists posted a Guthrie-invoking political parody on their Web site. Not surprisingly, TRO threatened to sue. The animated short portrayed G.W. Bush and John Kerry singing a goofy ditty to the tune of “This Land Is Your Land,” where Bush said, “You’re a liberal sissy,” Kerry replied, “You’re a right wing nut job,” and they sang together, “This land will surely vote for me.” Guthrie’s copyright managers didn’t think it was funny at all. “This puts a completely different spin on the song,” TRO’s Kathryn Ostien told CNN. “The damage to the song is huge.” Perhaps more damage is done to Guthrie’s legacy by practicing such an aggressive form of copyright zealotry.

“If someone changed a lyric in Woody’s time,” said Michael Smith, “chances are it wasn’t going to be recorded and it was just spread through campfire singing, you know, family-time singing and stuff like that. You know, now you can create your own CD at home and distribute it any way you want to, and so the dissemination is a lot broader, a lot faster, and can be a lot more detrimental to the integrity of the song.”Detrimental to the integrity of the song? I pressed him further on Guthrie’s own alterations of others’ songs and asked what Woody would think of TRO locking up his folksong catalog. “The answer to that is, you know, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to ask him, because we have a duty,’ ” Smith said. “We don’t know what Woody would have wanted - we can’t tell.”

Soon Michael Smith began to make a little more sense to me - at least economic sense. “If you allow multiple rewrites to occur, then people will think it’s in the public domain, and then you have a hard time pressing people to prove to them that it’s not in the public domain.” Then the publishers can no longer generate revenue from it. That a company can still make money off “This Land Is Your Land” is exactly the type of thing I believe Woody Guthrie would not have wanted. Even worse, that TRO prevents musicians from releasing altered, updated versions of his music probably makes Guthrie roll in his grave. But don’t trust me; listen to the man himself. When Guthrie was still alive, for instance, Bess Lomax Hawes told him that his song “Union Maid” had gone into the oral tradition, as folklorists call it.

“It was part of the cultural landscape, no longer even associated with him,” said Hawes, the daughter of the famous song collector and archivist Alan Lomax.“He answered, ‘If that were true, it would be the greatest honor of my life.’ ”[5] In a written statement attached to a published copy of his lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land,” Guthrie made clear his belief that it should be understood as communal property. “This song is Copyrighted in US,” he wrote, “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 ours, 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.” Notice that he mentioned the song’s copyright lasted twenty-eight years, though the term was later lengthened.

Also note that Guthrie said, “We wrote it” not “I wrote it,” something that indicates Guthrie didn’t see himself as the song’s sole author. Since much of the song’s power comes from that lovely melody passed down to him, how could he? In light of Guthrie’s view, how sad it is that others continue to taint this socialist musician’s ideals by keeping his songs private property, turning them into a lucrative revenue stream rather than a shareable part of our common cultural heritage. If Woody Guthrie had to make his art under the overly restrictive policies his song-publishing company imposes on today’s musicians, it would have been very hard for him to make his music at all. In some cases it would have been impossible, for “things have changed.”

In a dramatic turn of events, Ludlow Music, the subsidiary of TRO that controls Guthrie’s most famous copyrights, backed off from its legal threats against’s parody. This was after the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) -a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties online - came to the Web site’s rescue, providing legal counsel. What made the aftermath of the flap remarkable wasn’t merely that the copyright bullying ended. More interesting was the discovery by EFF senior intellectual property attorney Fred von Lohmann that, according to his research, “This Land Is Your Land” has been in the public domain since 1973! He writes:

Fact#1: Guthrie wrote the song in 1940. At that time, the term of copyright was twenty-eight years, renewable once for an additional twenty-eight years. Under the relevant law, the copyright term for a song begins when the song is published as sheet music. (Just performing it is not enough to trigger the clock.)

Fact #2: A search of Copyright Office records shows that the copyright wasn’t registered until 1956, and Ludlow filed for a renewal in 1984.

Fact #3: Thanks to tips provided by musicologists who heard about this story, we discovered that Guthrie published and sold the sheet music for “This Land Is Your Land” in a pamphlet in 1945. An original copy of this mimeograph was located for us by generous volunteers who visited the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This means that the copyright in the song expired in 1973, twenty-eight years after Guthrie published the sheet music. Ludlow’s attempted renewal in 1984 was eleven years tardy, which means the classic Guthrie song is in the public domain. (I’ll note that Ludlow disputes this, although I’ve not heard any credible explanation from them.)

So Guthrie’s original joins “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Amazing Grace,” and Beethoven’s Symphonies in the public domain. Come to think of it, now that “This Land Is Your Land” is in the public domain, can we make it our national anthem? That would be the most fitting ending of all.

Because art isn’t made from thin air, the existence of a large and thriving public domain enriches the quality and diversity of creative expression. It’s an important resource used by creative people to make new works, such as the musicals Les Misérables (based on the nineteenth-century novel by Victor Hugo) and West Side Story (based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet).[6] The public domain also promotes artistic freedom of expression®, because it eliminates the rigid control some copyright owners exercise over the context in which their works appear. For instance, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas were tightly controlled by the D’Oyly Carte Opera, which required that all performances be staged exactly as the originals were. Not a note could change. But when the copyrights were released into the public domain the musicals were freed from the shackles of artistic mummification.[7]

Disney - which strongly lobbied for the Bono Act - made billions of dollars recycling “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and many other old stories and fables. Like Guthrie, it would have been much harder for Walt Disney to legally make his fortune if he had to work under the intellectual-property laws his corporate heirs advocate. In his dissenting opinion in the challenge to the Bono Act, which the Supreme Court upheld, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that this law threatens the endangered ecosystem that is our cultural commons. “I cannot find,” wrote Breyer, “any constitutionally legitimate, copyrighted-related way in which the statute will benefit the public. Indeed, in respect to existing works, the serious public harm and the virtually nonexistent public benefit could not be more clear.”

Copyright protectionists defend the Bono Act by pointing out that Congress was only adhering to international copyright standards. However, this assertion ignores the fact that U.S.–based corporations such as Disney had a hugely influential role in setting these standards. In 2003 Illegal Art - a label hosted by Steev Hise’s collage-centric Web site and run by the pseudonymously named Philo Farnsworth (after the inventor of the television) - fought back. The label began work on its latest project, a compilation CD named Sonny Bono Is Dead. In its press release soliciting the input of artists, Illegal Art stated, “We encourage artists to liberally sample from works that would have fallen into the Public Domain by the year 2004 had the Sonny Bono Act failed,” adding slyly that “artists are also encouraged to create new works by sampling Sonny Bono’s output.”