Tom Lehrer is one of the most brilliant people in human history. Though a Harvard-trained mathematician, his most famous works are in the field of musical satire. A pioneer in the field of musical comedy, his satire was as biting as it was hilarious (if a little bit dated).
And just when you thought he couldn’t be any better, yesterday Lehrer announced that all of his lyrics would be available for free to everyone:
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All the lyrics on this website, whether published or unpublished, copyrighted or uncopyrighted, may be downloaded and used in any manner whatsoever, without requiring any further permission from me or any payment to me or to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.
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.
Note: This website will be shut down on December 31, 2024, so if you want to download anything, don’t wait too long. [Emphasis added]
I look forward to seeing what he does with his original sheet music, but it’s impossible to say how grateful I am to Tom Lehrer for doing this (and for all the music, of course).
But note the first bolded selection. “Should be treated as” is not the same “are.” In practice, there’s likely no difference between the two. However, the reason he cannot officially dedicate these works to the public domain, no strings attached, is because this isn’t a feature of current U.S. copyright law.
This article explores whether authors can dedicate their copyright to the public domain. Such dedications are becoming increasingly relevant as authors now see the expansion of the public domain as value in itself. This is facilitated by organisations providing pro forma documents for dedicating works to the public domain. However, there has been no real consideration of what, if any, legal effect a dedication to the public might have. This article suggests that such dedications are no more than copyright licences which, in English and US law at least, can be revoked at will. This means that users of such works must rely on estoppel alone to enforce any dedication to the public domain.
Current copyright law has a “termination” right, where individual rights holders can regain exclusive control to works transferred after 35 years, but that just refers to who controls the exclusive rights to a work, not whether or not someone can formally waive their rights.
And, there is certainly precedent for an author to “abandon” their copyright by dedicating a work to the public if “(a) the copyright owner intended to surrender the rights in the work [through] (b) an overt act evidencing that intent.” This, however, is not the same as completely and totally relinquishing rights to a work, opening the theoretical possibility that someone who dedicates a work to the public could “pick and choose” who to sue. This was an issue raised in a recent infringement claim against the alt-right website Infowars, and it all hinges on the fact that dedicating something to the public is not the same thing as fully relinquishing their rights.
By analogy: say I own a plot of land that I want to turn into a park. I can “dedicate” it to the public by making it free for all to use as they see fit, but that does not make it a public park in the same way one owned by the government is.
In the end, the practical difference between dedication and forfeiture is nonexistent for the purposes of Lehrer’s work. But the inability to formally abandon any and all claims to copyright protection, ironically, limits the ability of artists to fully control the fruits of their labor.