SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 15 AUGUST 2004
Land of the fee
Brothers Evan and Gregg Spiridellis have recently become folk heroes. And like their folk musical ancestors, they have very little to show for it.
Their website, JibJab.com, has so far received over 25m hits since they put up a flash (think 'South Park') movie last month, which is phenomenal. Over the course of the next five weeks they appeared on some of the biggest television shows in America, including 'The Tonight Show', and were mentioned in dozens of print publications.
They had a huge internet hit on their hands with a parody on the state of US presidential politics, featuring George Bush, John Kerry and a supporting cast of world political leaders.
Yet typical of the topsy-turvy world of online economics, the success of their two minute movie has cost the Spiridellis brothers. They had to fork out $20,000 to get the necessary bandwidth for their web servers and they could end up losing a lot more if they end up in court.
What has caused the legal eagles to swoop has nothing to do with election politics, it is the backing music. They called their movie 'This Land' as a tribute to Woody Guthrie's anthemic 'This Land is Your Land'.
While the music remains the same, the lyrics have been completely changed:
GW: 'You're a liberal sissy.'
JK: 'You're a right wing nutjob.'
GW: 'You're a pinko commie.'
JK: 'You're dumb as a doorknob.'
Gregg Spiridellis explained why they picked Guthrie's song: "We had a hard time finding the 'funny' in this year's election. We tried dressing the candidates like the Village People, but John Kerry in leather was too frightening for words... . We decided a parody of the late, great political songwriter, Woody Guthrie, was the way to go. If he were alive, what would he be singing?"
The brothers were accused of willful copyright infringement by music publisher Richmond Foundation, which owns the rights to 'This Land is Your Land'. Successful conviction carries a find of $150,000.
So far the Richmond Foundation has not gone to court but it has served a cease-and-desist order to get the movie pulled. The publisher has also sent similar letters to the companies which host JibJab.com. At the time of writing, the movie remains online and the brothers remain defiant. "For us, this was a clear Fair Use parody from day one", said Gregg Spiridellis.
The brothers responed by filing their own lawsuit in a Californian court asking the judge to rule that 'This Land' does not violate copyright. They are being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US digital rights campaign group.
Fred Von Lohmann, a lawyer with the group, believes copyright holders' increasingly aggressive tactics need to be countered. "This is an important case to set the tone for artists and authors who want to make use of famous works", he said referring to 'This Land'.
There is another timely twist to this story which lies in the origins of Guthrie's 'This Land is Your Land'.
Folk music has a strong tradition of 'borrowing' from others. Such cross-pollination has been credited with keeping folk music alive by passing it on through the generations.
Even some of the giants of the modern entertainment world have made their name (and fortune) through such 'borrowing'. Disney's Mickey Mouse was originally based on a Buster Keaton character called Steamboat Bill Jr, which in turn was based on an even earlier vaudeville routine. With the release of Steamboat Willie in 1928, Mickey, and an empire, was born.
So it comes as no surprise that Woody Guthrie lifted the melody of 'This Land is Your Land' more or less note for note from a song called 'When the World's on Fire'. It was recorded by country legends The Carter Family, ten years before Guthrie penned the song he's most remembered for. He wrote it in 1940, spurred on by his distaste for Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America'.
The Spiridellis brothers want to make it in Hollywood and there's no doubt that the recent massive publicity in America will probably get them there. But what about that question which inspired their short film? What would Woody Guthrie be singing today if he were still alive? And what would his attitude be to the use of his song in this way?
His son Arlo spoke out recently on the National Public Radio station in the US: "I think my dad would have absolutely loved the humour in it." He went on to say that he didn't think the JibJab version "is going to replace the original song, and it doesn't really compromise it... . I just think it was an incredibly wonderful bit of hilarity in the midst of an over serious conversation".
According to folk musician Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie used to post a small stencilled songbook to listeners who wanted the words of his songs. On the bottom of one page he wrote: "This song is Copyrighted in US, 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 ourn, cause we don't give a dern [sic]. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do".
With the 'This Land' film, that spirit is alive and well.