Creek Don't Rise

Who Owns Folk Music?
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Author:  paulrace [ Thu Aug 20, 2015 10:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Who Owns Folk Music?

Just realized that an article I wrote several months ago and never particularly promoted has gained a lot of readers "all on its own." I wrote it because some musicians I know WANT to deal ethically with conflicting copyright and authorship claims of Folk and "Folk-like" songs, but often don't know how.

"Who Owns Folk Songs" describes the ways some sheet music publishers try to claim "publishing royalties" on songs they have no right to. On the other extreme, some would-be musicians try very hard to avoid giving legitimate composers their due.

Other issues are addressed as well, including ways recording musicians can protect the public domain status of songs that are owned by "everybody," not just whoever most recently published or recorded them. ... _songs.htm

Author:  paulrace [ Fri Oct 02, 2015 3:09 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Who Owns Folk Music?

A reader writes:

Do you know if I can use childrens songs in an instructional video series?
Who owns the copyright for "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" etc.

------------Our Response, please log in and add your own if you have anything to add-----------

Thanks for getting in touch. Any song you can trace back before 1923 is in public domain. Mozart wrote Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, so you're safe there.

If you are wondering about a specific song, try seeing if Wikipedia has anything on it.

A site that lists children's songs that they THINK are in public domain is here: ... -songs.php

They list a lot of song titles/first lines that are either rare versions or outright wrong, so it's not like a great deal of scholarship has gone into it, but it might get you started.

For myself, I have some songbooks that include children's songs, too, that I can look songs up in and see if there is any claim of copyright.

You can't do that with anything published by Mel Bay, because they claim a copyright on every song they publish, even ancient songs.

Best of luck, please let me know if I can help with anything specific,


Author:  paulrace [ Sun Aug 21, 2016 7:29 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Who Owns Folk Music?

A Chicago-based lawyer writing about the copyright battles over songs like "We Shall Overcome" and "This Land is Your Land" came across my "Who Owns Folk Songs?" article ( ... _songs.htm) and contacted me to get my "take" on those issues for a legal journal. Of course if you drew a Venn diagram comparing lawyers with folk music aficionados, the intersection would probably be pretty small. But among that group, I could be almost famous in a few weeks! :-)

While I'm on the subject, even if Woody used a prexisting tune for "This Land is Your Land," his lyrics deserve a copyright and Woody's heirs deserve the income at least as much, as, say, Walt Disney's heirs deserve the income from the first Mickey Mouse movie.

The authorship of We Shall Overcome has been argued in many places, but Pete Seeger wasn't trying to cheat anybody when he registered the copyright under the name of the person he thought most responsible for the version he learned and sang. He never received a penny for it, and he was trying to keep the song from being used in advertising to promote some objectionable product.

If you think that's out of the question, the opening line of "City Of New Orleans" was borrowed for a laxative commercial about fifteen years ago. There were shots of happy people throwing up the shades or stepping outside to see the sunrise, while the line "Good morning, America, how are you?" were sung. The subtext was that they were happy because they had just had a satisfying bowel movement. (Come to think of it, I almost had a bowel movement when I saw that commercial.) Now THAT use was probably negotiated with Steve Goodman's widow, and may have helped with the bills, so it was her choice. But it shows the possibilities.

Say, Donald Trump using "This Land is Your Land" at his rallies, or Merrill Lynch or Nike or Apple using "We Shall Overcome" in their Superbowl ads. (Speaking of bowel movements.)

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