By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal judge in Manhattan on Friday dismissed a lawsuit claiming that Woody Guthrie’s iconic 1940 folk song “This Land is Your Land” belongs to the public.
U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel ruled against members of the New York band Satorii, which recorded two versions of “This Land,” after the two publishers that control the song’s rights agreed not to sue them for copyright infringement.
Satorii had claimed that the “This Land” melody closely resembled a Baptist gospel hymn from around the start of the 20th century, known by such titles as “Fire Song,” and that any copyright to “This Land” lapsed several decades ago.
It sued the publishers Ludlow Music and The Richmond Organization in June 2016, seeking to void their copyright and establish that “This Land” was in the public domain.
In March 2019, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts had allowed Satorii to pursue its copyright claims.
But the following month, the publishers entered a “covenant not to sue” Satorii over “This Land,” and refunded a $45.50 licensing fee the band had paid to produce its versions.
Castel, who took over the case following Batts’ Feb. 3 death, said the “extremely broad” covenant mooted Satorii’s case, and there was no reasonable expectation the publishers might again challenge its use of “This Land.”
“We’re very pleased with the result,” said Paul LiCalsi, a lawyer for the publishers.
Ludlow had registered a copyright for “This Land” in 1956, after Guthrie assigned it his copyright in the song, the publishers have said.
“We are disappointed with the court’s decision, which gave the defendants unfair veto power to stop this meritorious case from proceeding,” Satorii’s lawyer, Mark Rifkin, said in an email. “We are considering how best to continue to pursue these important issues.”
Rifkin and his law firm have – through litigation -successfully moved other classic American songs into the public domain, including “Happy Birthday to You” and the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Guthrie wrote “This Land” at age 27 in reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which he thought glossed over the country’s wealth and land inequality, according to the Library of Congress.
The case is Saint-Amour et al v The Richmond Organization Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-04464.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler, Matthew Lewis and David Gregorio)