Tom Lehrer Puts Whatever He Hadn’t Already Donated To The Public Domain Into The Public Domain

from the a-true-hero dept

Hopefully, you already know who Tom Lehrer is, and are already familiar with his music, but if you’re somehow in the dark, I suggest you read this excellent profile, or visit his unofficial official YouTube channel. Or, visit his website where you can download everything for free (he even begs you not to send him money).

We’ve written about Lehrer twice before, both regarding his views on effectively releasing his music in the public domain. Back in 2014, we wrote about how a fan had basically put all of his works on YouTube, and then contacted Lehrer to apologize. Lehrer told him there was nothing to apologize for: he was glad the works were out there. The fan then asked if he needed to do something to make sure that no one would ever copyright strike the videos, and Lehrer again says not to worry, as far as he’s concerned it’s all in the public domain, and he has no heirs to cause problems after he dies:

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.

Then, in 2020, we wrote about him again, noting that he had put up a website where he had announced that all of his lyrics had been officially dedicated to the public domain, and he encouraged people to do what they wanted with them. At the time, we noted that this did not cover the actual music, but Lehrer had suggested he would add that at a future time.

Apparently, that future time has come. Lehrer has expanded the letter on his website, now dated to November of 2022, even if much of it is identical to what we wrote about two years ago. But the big difference is that he’s now including all of the music in the public domain dedication:

I, Tom Lehrer, and the Tom Lehrer Trust 2007, hereby grant the following permissions:

All copyrights to lyrics or music written or composed by me have been relinquished, and therefore such songs are now in the public domain. All of my songs that have never been copyrighted, having been available for free for so long, are now also in the public domain.

The latter includes all lyrics which I have written to music by others, although the music to such parodies, if copyrighted by their composers, are of course not included without permission of their copyright owners. The translated songs on this website may be found on YouTube in their original languages.

Performing and recording rights to all of my songs are included in this permission. Translation rights are also included.

In particular, permission is hereby granted to anyone to set any of these lyrics to their own music, or to set any of this music to their own lyrics, and to publish or perform their parodies or distortions of these songs without payment or fear of legal action.

Some recording, movie, and television rights to songs written by me are merely licensed non-exclusively by me to recording, movie, or TV companies. All such rights are now released herewith and therefore do not require any permission from me or from Maelstrom Music, which is merely me in another hat, nor from the recording, movie, or TV companies involved.

In short, I no longer retain any rights to any of my songs.

So help yourselves, and don’t send me any money.

As I said, much of this statement reflects what was on the site before, but now it covers the music as well as the lyrics. He’s also basically put up everything you need. You can download the music as MP3s, you can stream albums, you can download lyrics as PDF files. It’s… pretty comprehensive. And pretty impressive.

Of course, there’s also this semi-ominous warning:


I hope that someone (hey, Internet Archive?) is making sure that this page, and all the music is preserved long after Lehrer removes it.

Either way, it’s another lovely gift, and it’s a strange one, given that in these days of ever expanding copyright terms, most artists never live to see any of their works enter the public domain. Lehrer should be celebrated for his music and wit, of course, but also for making sure his works are really in the public domain while he’s still alive, which is an amazing contribution to public culture.

Of course, as we’ve discussed for years, there is no official way under US copyright law to put works in the public domain. The best you can do is effectively make clear that you are giving up any rights to enforce your copyrights, which is what Lehrer has done here. It’s a shame that US law does not allow for an official public domain dedication, but maybe one day that will happen.

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Tom Lehrer Puts Whatever He Hadn’t Already Donated To The Public Domain Into The Public Domain”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Wyrm (profile) says:

All of my songs that have never been copyrighted, having been available for free for so long…

Note that these two things are not the same.
Something being available for free doesn’t mean they are free of copyrights.

His initiative is laudable, but this sentence here might confuse some people into believing that there is no copyright on works distributed for free.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...