Tom Lehrer, Still Awesome, Releases Lyrics Into The Public Domain
from the good-for-him dept
Back in 2014 we had a post about Tom Lehrer and copyright. As you hopefully know, Lehrer, the unassuming retired math teacher, had a brief and massively successful music career, in part because all of his work is amazing. Years back, Buzzfeed had a fantastic article about Lehrer that is worth reading. That’s what spurred my post about Lehrer and copyright, because in the Buzzfeed piece it became clear that Lehrer did not care one bit about retaining his copyrights.
While Lehrer has made startlingly little effort to ensure a future for his work, a handful of superfans have filled in the gap. One is Erik Meyn, a Norwegian who manages the Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel on YouTube, a feed of performance videos and playlists that has received more than 10 million views since 2007. Meyn originally posted content to the channel without Lehrer’s permission and called him from overseas in December 2008 to apologize, a conversation he later posted on the “Tom Lehrer!” Facebook page. An excerpt:
TL: Well, you see, I’m fine with that channel.
EM: You’re very kind. But my question is: Who in your family will take care of your copyright and your songs in the distant future?
TL: I don’t have a family.
EM: OK, but what do you think will happen to the channel and your songs? And if you have someone who will act on your behalf, could you give them my name in case they’d want the channel taken down?
TL: Yes, but there’s no need to remove that channel.
EM: I was just wondering what will happen in the future, because you’re certainly going to continue to sell records.
TL: Well, I don’t need to make money after I’m dead. These things will be taken care of.
EM: I feel like I gave away some of your songs to public domain without even asking you, and that wasn’t very nice of me.
TL: But I’m fine with that, you know.
EM: Will you establish any kind of foundation or charity or something like that?
TL: No, I won’t. They’re mostly rip-offs.
And then later, Lehrer talks about how he doesn’t even care about his masters any more:
In 2011, Morris was rummaging through the Sparks Street basement, and alongside the collection of books and records Lehrer referred to as his “Noel Coward shrine” were two boxes marked “masters.” They were, to Morris, “the holy grail.” These were the original recordings of the 1959 album More Songs by Tom Lehrer: the orchestral session and outtakes and Lehrer’s recordings. Morris offered to help Lehrer remix them from half-inch tapes into stereo recordings.
“Well, why don’t you just take them with you?” Lehrer said.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding?! These are the master copies!'” Morris recalled. “I was just trying to reassure him, I’ll be very careful with them, I won’t let them fall in the wrong hands, I’m not going to distribute copies to anyone without your permission.“
“I don’t care!” Lehrer told him. “They’re not worth anything to me.”
Lehrer clearly sees that he doesn’t need to retain the copyrights and try to squeeze extra profits out of the works (of course, it helps that he never gave up the copyrights and masters to giant record companies). And I loved the fact that he said he was “fine with that” when told that his songs were given away to the public domain.
Of course, all of that is just talk in an article. Which is why it was exciting to see earlier this week that Lehrer’s website has announced that all of his lyrics should be considered in the public domain:
I, Tom Lehrer, and the Tom Lehrer Trust 2000, hereby grant the following permission:
All the lyrics on this website, whether published or unpublished, copyrighted or uncopyrighted, may be downloaded and used in any manner whatsoever, without requiring any further permission from me or any payment to me or to anyone else.
Some lyrics written by Tom Lehrer to copyrighted music by others are included herein, but of course such music may not be used without permission of the copyright owners. (The translated songs may be found in their original languages on YouTube.)
In other words, all the lyrics herein should be treated as though they were in the public domain.
In particular, permission is hereby granted to anyone to set any of these lyrics to their own music and publish or perform their versions without fear of legal action.
If you want to be technical, under US law there is no “official” way to move things into the public domain like this. You can only make an effective license not to sue about it, which is what Lehrer has done. And good for him.
And while at this time it’s just his lyrics, it sounds like he’s looking to figure out how to do something similar for the compositions as well:
This permission applies only to the lyrics on this website. Most of the music written by Tom Lehrer will be added gradually later with further disclaimers.
Of course, it’s notable that at the time he made most of his recordings, you could only get a federal copyright for the composition and not the sound recordings. Some later recordings, however were released in the 2000s (and sometimes by other companies) and I imagine the copyright situation with those recordings may be a bit more complex. Still, putting the lyrics in the public domain is something worth celebrating.
And, thus, in celebration, I’ll embed Tom Lehrer performing “Who’s Next?” in the hopes that other musicians will embrace this (even though the song is actually about who will next get the nuclear bomb).