by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
copyright, culture, music, tom lehrer

Tom Lehrer, Culture And Copyright After Death

from the different-attitudes dept

If you don't know who Tom Lehrer is, well, you've missed out for a long, long time. Still, it's never too late to catch up, and there are plenty of great sources, including the The Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel on YouTube (though, hardly a "rare cut" this remains my favorite). Of course there's much more to the lore of Lehrer than just his music, and Ben Smith at Buzzfeed has an has an excellent long discussion of Lehrer's life, including his very brief, but massive, music career, and his life for the past half a century in which he more or less tries to hide from or live down that whole episode of his life. It's a great read.

But what caught my attention was some discussion that Lehrer has had with certain fans concerning the copyright on his works, whether or not it's okay to put them online and what happens to them after his death. The simple answer seems to be that Lehrer couldn't care any less about all of it.
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.

There's also the discussion with a fan who has been in contact here and there with Lehrer for the past 20 years or so, who stopped by his house once, found Lehrer's master tapes, and Lehrer just gave them to him:
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.”
None of this is to suggest that any other artists should necessarily follow down the same path. But I always find it interesting to see artists who decide that the traditional concepts of copyright don't make any sense to them, and just choose not to have anything to do with them. Given that Lehrer is so influential on so many people in so many different fields today, it seemed worth sharing this little tidbit.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 16th, 2014 @ 8:49pm

    The problem is that it's impossible for artists like Lehrer to do anything about it. When he eventually passes, it's up to his extended family members and the labels he's worked with to not litigate for the copyright to his works in order for them to legally be in the public domain, and even then they'll be in that nebulous area where said family and labels could later claim said copyright at a later date. Doesn't matter if they have a legal leg to stand on, the labels have enough money to create one. The idea of automatic copyright is ridiculous and highly detrimental to true artists rights for this exact reason.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    OldGeezer (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 12:27am

    Those of you who weren't around in the 60's and aren't familiar with Mr. Leher's work should check him out on YouTube. He is the greatest satire writer of all times. It only makes me like him more to hear that he is so cool about the copyright issue. Music was only a small part of his career despite the fact that he sold millions of albums. He taught a number of subjects at several prestigious colleges as well as being a part of many scientific research projects. A true genius.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    PaulT (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 12:51am

    It's great that he doesn't care about the standard copyright rules and doesn't consider them important.

    But, I hope he has some of his wishes in writing. If he hasn't specifically released his work under a different licence, he could find his work co-opted or blocked from release because certain corporations have made sure those rules apply after his death whether he wants them or not. Especially since a quick glance at his Wikipedia page lists work with several major labels.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    That One Guy (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 1:44am


    Never mind after he dies, it's quite possible that whether he cares or not they could make a grab for his works, or make claims on them and have them pulled.

    He may realize that money won't do him much good when he's dead, but depending on who ends up with the copyrights to his stuff, they might not be so magnanimous about the matter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    OldGeezer (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 1:47am


    You are probably right. The labels would rather block the work of this brilliant musician even if it means they won't get another dime out of them than to ever let them fall into public domain before my great grandchildren would reach retirement age.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Spaceman Spiff (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 4:03am

    Doing The Vatican Rag

    I've been a big fan of Lehrer since I can remember - the early 1960's for sure! From "The Vatican Rag" (seems appropriate as we approach the Easter holidays):

    Time to get down on your knees.
    Fiddle with your rosaries.
    Bow your head with great respect,
    And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect.
    We're doing the Vatican rag!

    Besides a great songwriter and performer, he is also a mathematician and teacher.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2014 @ 4:50am

    /me loves Tom Lehrer

    /me just got a book of his piano sheet music

    /me so glad he's no IP bully

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    mcinsand, Apr 17th, 2014 @ 5:47am

    protection from those that might poison pigeons in the park

    If Mr. Lehrer is not concerned with the copyrights, or, more appropriately, if he is concerned with copyright abusers, then maybe there are some opportunities. What if his copyrights went to fund a nonprofit specifically set up to assist victims of copyright abusers? I'm not sure how this would work, since they would not be able to fund everyone, but he doesn't seem to want to cozy up to the RIAA. If he finds that as repulsive as the rest of us do, then maybe there is a chance to help defend other victims.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    OldGeezer (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 6:24am

    Re: Doing The Vatican Rag

    My grandfather was a very devout Catholic and he overheard me playing that song and freaked. My mother was going to take away the record but I promised to never to play it when he was around and changed her mind. Gee; I can't imagine why he was so offended!

    Tom wasn't worried who's toes he stepped on. There was a rumor that former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who was working for our space program sued him over the song about him.
    "Some have harsh words for this man of renown. But I say our attitude should be one of gratitude. Like the widows and cripples in old London Town. Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    David, Apr 17th, 2014 @ 7:38am

    I love Tom Lehrer even more now.

    What an amazing talent.

    I've purchased 3 of his albums and the book "Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer with Not Enough Drawings By Ronald Searle"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anon, Apr 17th, 2014 @ 8:23am

    One of the Greats

    My stepsister played some of his songs for us when I was 14. Absolutely brilliant. She was devout catholic but had no problem with Vatican Rag; she did however get upset when my brother started singing the song about poisoning family in front of her 4 year old son.

    Some of the rarities I grabbed as soon as I could find them on Napster.

    He really did not care that much for his musical career. I believe in one of his live recordings in some huge theatre, he points out, "I don't need to do this. I have a perfectly good job as a matehmatician making, oh, about $7,000 a year."

    Just as a point, if he gave permission to use his songs, I doubt his heirs could retract that. the trick would be to prove the permision exists if it was verabl - although I suspect a sequence of testimony like the stories in the article should go a long way to establishing that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    Aaron Wolf (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 8:25am

    Re: No, Mr. Lehrer was the first to make his OWN label

    He didn't work with record labels. They wouldn't touch him, and so his has the significance of having been perhaps the first artist to create his own record label.

    The other issues are real about extended family etc.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    BentFranklin (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 9:40am

    Re: Re: Doing The Vatican Rag

    Also on the Germans:

    They say all the Germans are warlike and mean,
    But that couldn't happen again.
    We taught them a lesson in 1919,
    And they've hardly bothered us since then!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    madasahatter (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 9:54am

    Re: Re: No, Mr. Lehrer was the first to make his OWN label

    The issue about extended family depends on what verifiable agreements have been made before the artist dies and what the will says about the IP issues. In Tom Lehrer's case it appears there are verifiable agreements were he waived any royalties. These agreements would be binding on the estate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    madasahatter (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 10:02am

    Re: One of the Greats

    The key about permission is whether is it verifiable by non-hearsay means. This article, while documenting his attitude, would likely be considered hearsay. But an email or letter from him to someone giving permission is direct evidence.

    I was involved in a similar issue were the author died before we finished the project. The copyright passed to the author's brother who knew about the project and give his written permission to continue as we originally planned. There were some documents from the author which a lawyer said would stand up in court as showing intent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    madasahatter (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 10:09am

    Realistic Attitude

    Tom Lehrer's attitude is more realistic than most. There are new fans and fans who want to keep his work alive. But is he not likely to make any serious money from them. What he has grasped is most works have a shelf life of a few years. Most artists need to continually create new works to make more money and hope the public still is willing to buy them.

    In Tom's case, much of his satire was topical to events happening in the late 50's and early 60's. So unless you understand the reference, the humor will be missed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 11:30am


    He is the greatest satire writer of all times.

    Just off the top of my head, he's good but he's no Gilbert & Sullivan...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    DOlz (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 12:30pm

    Re: Re:

    You're correct, but the "The Elements" is an improvement on a "Major-General's Song".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    DOlz (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 12:37pm

    Re: Realistic Attitude

    Oh I don't know about that. "Poisoning Pigeons In the Park", "Be Prepared", and "The Masochism Tango", among others are timeless.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    Ben (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 1:48pm

    Re: Re: Doing The Vatican Rag

    My father in law was a devout (5-7 times a week going to church, opus dei, etc) and he thought the song was hilarious and loved Tom Lehrer. One of my first dates with my wife was to a Tom Lehrer musical, so maybe it was just part of the family genes.

    Poisoning Pigeons in the Park has always been one of my favorites, but I think it would be easier to list the songs I don't like by Tom Lehrer; the other list is too long.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    BernardoVerda (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 1:52pm

    Tom Lehrer is alive? In that case...

    ... I guess I owe him some money!

    (Last year I downloaded a couple of Lehrer torrents.

    But I thought he was dead, and my recent experience trying to buy a Lily Tomlin album had led me to assume (erroneously, I now see) that I simply wouldn't be able to acquire "legitimate" CDs -- and of course, Amazon still won't "ship" a digital track across the US/Canadian border.

    I wonder if Mr. Lehrer could be persuaded to come out of retirement long enough to craft a couple of songs on DRM and Intellectual Property?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    OldGeezer (profile), Apr 17th, 2014 @ 7:55pm

    Re: Realistic Attitude

    Some of his songs are about current events of that time but on many of his albums he narrates before each song in a hilarious way explaining what it is about. You don't have to be from that time to catch most of the jokes. Many of his songs are timeless. They are still often being used in TV series. Pollution has been one of the most popular. Just recently his element song was used on an episode of NCIS where the story was an encrypted message was hidden in it. I just checked Amazon and Rhapsody and dozens of his songs are available for download. I doubt they would be carrying them if there were not still some demand for his work. His music will continue to pass to generations. I'm in my 60's but my 30 year old kid has loved Tom Lehrer since I played his music for him when he was in his teens.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    PaulT (profile), Apr 18th, 2014 @ 7:09am

    Re: Re: No, Mr. Lehrer was the first to make his OWN label

    "He didn't work with record labels."

    Not to begin with, but from what I can see he sold rights to Reprise among other RIAA affiliated labels later on.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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