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).

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Comments on “Tom Lehrer, Still Awesome, Releases Lyrics Into The Public Domain”

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MightyMetricBatman says:

Re: Re: 'It's yours to own whether you want it to be or not!'

US copyright law was written for large corporations, not the people, not small companies. No large corporation is going to throw out a copyright into the public domain as long as there is any chance they can collect rents out of it.

Just another good example of how badly copyright has been warped by large commercial interests.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That’s just a myth. [Y]ou can voluntarily abandon your United States copyrights:

It is well settled that rights gained under the Copyright Act may be abandoned. But abandonment of a right must be manifested by some overt act indicating an intention to abandon that right. See Hampton v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 279 F.2d 100, 104 (9th Cir. 1960).

—Micro-Star v. Formgen Inc., 154 F.3d 1107 (9th Cir. 1998).

From the same page:

The Ninth Circuit Model Civil Jury Instructions, 2007 edition, Section 17.19, states a model for the text that courts give to juries:
The defendant contends that a copyright does not exist in the plaintiff’s work because the plaintiff abandoned the copyright. The plaintiff cannot claim ownership of the copyright if it was abandoned. In order to show abandonment, the defendant has the burden of proving each of the following by a preponderance of the evidence:

  1. the plaintiff intended to surrender [ownership] rights in the work; and
  2. an act by the plaintiff evidencing that intent.
crazy_diamond (profile) says:


Lehrer’s songs were a sing-a-long staple on road trips in my family (remember when you could ride in the way-back of a station wagon without it being a crime?). We were thoroughly indoctrinated by his subversive music as well as that of Pete Seeger. Later, when my younger sister was old enough to participate, we mimicked the homosexual, equality-loving Communists who recorded "Free to be You and Me".

Dad wasn’t all too comfortable with it, but Mom showed us the truism of "when you got ’em by the balls, they will shut up and drive".

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Boris Lugosi says:

I've given WAY more text to Public Domain, and you "hide" it!

You’re not consistent. Here I strain my tiny brain to add / enlighten / bring out overlooked points — never "darken" the site and rarely more than mildly annoyed — YET you censor all my efforts.

Now and then ya just discourage me, Maz.

But, over 99% of the time, your combination of woozy hippy and high-tech corporatist just makes me giggle.

Oh, and there is SO an "official" to abandon copyright: just don’t put your name on it and don’t enforce it! As I do, though you of frail ego who cling to the "ownership culture" keep putting "BY LINES" on your efforts!

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: I've given WAY more text to Public Domain, and you "hide" it

"my tiny brain"

You do occasionally stumble across facts now and again, I’ll give you that.

"YET you censor all my efforts"

Not all content is valuable. You mistake people telling the mosquito to stop buzzing as people suppressing a classic concerto. Believe me, you’ve never composed the latter.

"just don’t put your name on it and don’t enforce it"

That doesn’t help the people who don’t have that choice (for example, the century of deceased people whose work your heroes are preventing the rest of us from seeing, because they keep robbing the public domain from the public).

David says:

Re: the pigeons's are in trouble now!

Here is a link in the Internet archive found on the German(!) Wikipedia article about Georg Kreisler where Tom Lehrer talks about songs he feels Kreisler plagiarised from him (and others).

He does use the word "steal" in there (which has probably become more loaded since the time when Stravinsky stated "Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.").

It’s sort-of related to this news item, so I thought I’d give the reference. Not trying to make a point (can’t think of one, actually).

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

This is exactly what I plan to do with my music.

My original music (and covers of public domain cover I made) is licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 license. I don’t have any heirs, nor do I have a label. I’ve done the same thing as Tom Lehrer such that when I die, all of my music (i.e. both the song itself and the masters thereof) will be dedicated to the public domain. While I wasn’t influenced by Tom Lehrer, I decided on it because it made the most sense. I guess great minds think alike!

David says:

Re: This is exactly what I plan to do with my music.

The whole point of "Noncommercial" licensing is that basically any redistribution at scale is prohibited due to it almost always being connected to some kind of advertising.

So it’s not really "great minds think alike".

A "Noncommercial" license essentially only says that you’ll not go after individuals swapping media in a non-organised manner. But few entities actually do that anyway since there is little benefit in it.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: This is exactly what I plan to do with my music.

"But few entities actually do that anyway since there is little benefit in it."

Unless you have a barely audible Prince song in the background of your video of your kid, in which case it becomes a massively important legal case.

David says:

Re: Re: Re: This is exactly what I plan to do with my music.

Which due to the scope of redistribution among displayed ads becomes "commercial distribution" since Youtube generates considerable direct revenue as well as exposure from it.

Allowing "noncommercial" distribution really is not different from allowing "insignificant" distribution in practice.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This is exactly what I plan to do with my music.

"Youtube generates considerable direct revenue"

The post office generates similar "significant revenue" if someone sends out DVDs with copies of the same home video to their family, but this was never something that got people demanding they be held directly responsible for it (note that I’m referring to the original viewership of the video, not the Streisand effect revenue generated by the lawsuit).

"Allowing "noncommercial" distribution really is not different from allowing "insignificant" distribution in practice."

False. The internet means that it’s trivial to distribute to a signifiant number of people without a commercial motive, unlike previous eras where physical media required a significant financial outlay to do so. If I wanted 10,000 people to see a video in 1980, I’d have had to make 10,000 video tapes and nobody’s doing that unless they have an income from it. YouTube offer that facility to anyone for zero cost, including billions of videos from which they never see any revenue. The facts of reality have changed.

This is the major problem with htese arguments in the internet age – you’re applying 20th century assumptions to a 21st century reality, and they make as much sense as trying to apply horse and cart road rules to the freeway.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This is exactly what I plan to do with my music.

Your position assumes that the barely audible song in the background is the reason viewers watch that video. Considering that the foreground noise in the video ruins enjoyment of the background music and that there are far better sources for that music than your home movies. How does enforcing copyright on said video do anything at all to curb piracy or make more money for the copyright owner of that background music?

You copyright maximalists are not very bright. You would allow corporations to lock up public culture behind a paywall.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 This is exactly what I plan to do with my mu

"How does enforcing copyright on said video do anything at all to curb piracy or make more money for the copyright owner of that background music?"

My memory is a bit hazy, but IIRC the idea behind that lawsuit was presumably to force YouTube to share a bunch of its revenue with the RIAA labels, or to shut down the competition entirely. If they were sued and the court found that even passing and barely audible instances of a song was in violation, then the RIAA would be in a position to either extort ridiculous licence fees from YouTube, or make it impossible for them to host anything without a level of vetting that would make the site difficult or impossible to operate.

Thankfully, they failed, and as always happens with these people when they were forced to deal with the realities of the modern marketplace they eventually found a way to make a lot of money from YouTube honestly. The frequency of the more ridiculous lawsuits has subsided somewhat, with the main issue nowadays being the naturally inefficient nature of the ContentID system, rather than them trying to do dumb stuff in court.

It’s nonsense if you consider their claims of actual damage at face value, but if you view it as a tool to crush competition or run an extortion racket, the lawsuit made sense.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: He can CC0 his assets, yes?

CC0 is a covenant not to sue. And that effectively puts a work in the public domain, but there is no full legal mechanism to do so. Some lawyers have pointed out that courts will recognize copyright abandonment, so it could be argued that CC0 is the equivalent of abandonment. But there is no official mechanism in the law to say that the work is in the public domain. You can just promise to act as if it is (which — conveniently — is almost just as good).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: He can CC0 his assets, yes?

CC0 is a covenant not to sue. And that effectively puts a work in the public domain

It’s a copyright waiver, combined with a covenant not to sue if the waiver’s not recognized by a court:

2. Waiver. To the greatest extent permitted by, but not in contravention of, applicable law, Affirmer hereby overtly, fully, permanently, irrevocably and unconditionally waives, abandons, and surrenders all of Affirmer’s Copyright and Related Rights and associated claims and causes of action, whether now known or unknown (including existing as well as future claims and causes of action), in the Work (i) in all territories worldwide, (ii) for the maximum duration provided by applicable law or treaty (including future time extensions), (iii) in any current or future medium and for any number of copies, and (iv) for any purpose whatsoever, including without limitation commercial, advertising or promotional purposes (the "Waiver"). Affirmer makes the Waiver for the benefit of each member of the public at large and to the detriment of Affirmer’s heirs and successors, fully intending that such Waiver shall not be subject to revocation, rescission, cancellation, termination, or any other legal or equitable action to disrupt the quiet enjoyment of the Work by the public as contemplated by Affirmer’s express Statement of Purpose.
3. Public License Fallback. Should any part of the Waiver for any reason be judged legally invalid or ineffective under applicable law, …

To say there’s no "official" way could be seen as somewhat misleading. While true, I’m not aware of any US court ever refusing to honor a waiver of copyright. Even if not explicitly written into legislation, courts have well-documented procedures for dealing with such waivers. In the 9th circuit, CC0 will truly (not just "effectively") put something into the public domain.

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