The Nations of the World (Copyright, 1993)

Another reason why I am not crazy about over-restrictive copyright laws: culture is meant to be reproduced and shared.

Today I encountered a very odd example of copyright infringement. I was listening to "The World," a radio program put together by Public Radio International. Towards the end of the hour, Lisa Mullins (the host) interviewed Shaunna Bresnahan, a New York City college student who can sing the names of all the countries in the world in under 60 seconds. (Here's the audio track of the segment).

Breshnahan received attention last week on the set of the Late Show with David Letterman (transcript) for singing her tune (the song puts 193 countries to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance).

The interview was about what you'd expect: how remarkable it was that a young woman had the ingenuity and the global awareness to set out to learn the countries of the world through song (though Mullins did point out several changes to the political world not reflected in the song).

But here's the irony: Bresnahan didn't write the song. The song was written by Randy Rogel for the now-defunct cartoon, Animaniacs. The song, called Yakko's World, was performed in the second episode of that series in 1993.

To her credit, Bresnahan said twice in the course of the interview that she had learned the song watching television, though Mullins seemed to take this as her adapting the tune from television to her own words.

All of which I am fine with, save perhaps the fuss that is being made over a struggling actress reciting verbatim the words from a cartoon performance.

However, this story got me thinking about copyright. Strictly speaking, Bresnahan performed the entire song on both network television and on national radio without giving credit to the lyricist or the copyright holder (presumably, Warner Bros.) Now I don't think she received any funds for doing so, but certainly a struggling actress could benefit from the attention drawn to her by such exposure. Should she somehow become a superstar, one wonders if the copyright holder of that song could make the argument that he or she (or it, Warner Bros.) deserved some compensation. Not that I think they would (I imagine Rogel would be pleased to know that at least one child benefited from his work). But a strict interpretation of copyright law (similar to those made in the dispute by the RIAA when communicating with Negativland, for example) keeps cultural expression from ocurring.

Culture is meant to be spread, performed, improved upon, reinterpreted and redistributed. To place firm restrictions on its use doesn't merely line the coffers of the few remaining media conglomerates in our world; it denies most of the world's populace access to the culture in the first place.

Wouldn't it be great if the members of all those countries could learn to sing the Yakko Song?