Without a doubt, Tom Lehrer is one of the most brilliant satirists in modern American history. His music and humor have remained both popular and relevant for nearly 70 years now as he has inspired literal generations of satirists and musicians with his work.
With songs such as Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, New Math, The Masochism Tango and, one of my personal favorites, A Christmas Carol, he’s left a deep and indelible mark on American culture.
That mark has been directly observed by the various revivals he has had. Despite largely exiting in the music scene by 1972, his work was the subject of a 1980 off-Broadway production entitled Tom Foolery and a pair of CD box sets in 2000 and 2010.
He was also coaxed out of musical retirement in 1998 to perform for Queen Elizabeth II as part of the show Hey, Mr. Producer!.
However, it seems likely that Lehrer may be set for yet another major revival as news spread yesterday that Lehrer, now 92, had released his lyrics and much of his music into the public domain. This has already sparked a great deal of interest in possible covers and recreations of his most famous songs.
Note: It’s worth stating that the declaration deals with his compositions and his lyrics, not the recordings. Those are most likely not owned by Lehrer.
However, the statement isn’t wholly true. Tom Lehrer didn’t actually release his songs into the public domain. While it may be pedantry given that there is no practical difference, the lengths Lehrer had to go to release what he did in the way that he did only further highlights Lehrer’s genius and is well worth exploring.
If this is truly to be Lehrer’s final musical act, it makes sense to see it for both the effort it took and the intellect required to conceive of it.
A Brief History of Tom Lehrer
Born in 1928, Tom Lehrer was quickly identified as a child prodigy and entered Harvard College at the age of just 15. There, he began writing and performing comedic songs for his friends but remained mostly committed to his studies until 1953.
It was then he paid for studio time and recorded his first album, Songs by Tom Lehrer. Despite a lack of radio play, Lehrer was able to sell it on the Harvard campus and soon the album’s popularity slowly grew and attracted nationwide attention.
However, his music career was put on hold when, in 1955, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. There he served as an enlisted soldier despite having a master’s degree at the time. During his time he was assigned to the National Security Agency, which wasn’t even known to the public at that time.
He exited the army in 1957 and almost immediately resumed his musical career. He toured the United Kingdom in December of that year and released his second album, More of Tom Lehrer, in 1959. By the end of the decade, he had sold 350,000 records.
In 1960 Lehrer returned to Harvard to resume his studies but also became the resident songwriter for the show That Was the Week That Was. Lehrer did not appear on the show even though his music was heavily featured within it.
However, during this time Lehrer greatly reduced his touring and ceased producing studio albums. In 1965 he performed the songs he wrote for the show on a live album also entitled That Was the Year That Was. He also re-recorded Songs by Tom Lehrer in 1966 and did a few smaller tours.
Still, by the early 1970s, he had largely withdrawn from music. He focused instead on academia. Though he had taught political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962, he took a full-time job teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he taught until 2001 when he retired.
Outside of a few concerts and appearances, Lehrer largely remained out of the spotlight over the past 50 years. According to him, he simply didn’t find making music interesting. A private man, he dislikes giving interviews and he also hates the monotony of touring. He also says he only wrote music when it interested him. Once it stopped being interesting, he moved on.
All in all, Tom Lehrer wrote 37 songs and played 109 concerts. A short career but a deeply impactful one.
Tom Lehrer’s Copyright
Compared to most other musicians and creators, Tom Lehrer has a long history of having a relaxed attitude about the rights to his work.
For most of his life, Lehrer has maintained control of his master recordings. These are powerful for artists that want to control when and how their work is reprinted as they represent the original studio recordings.
In the 1980s, when Rhino wanted to release a new compilation of Lehrer’s work, Lehrer pulled out a box of his master tapes for two of his albums. The box had sat there in his basement, unopened since he got it in 1957. He then mailed the tapes to Rhino with a letter that read, “I have nothing to play these on and I hope they’re OK.”
In 2011, he lent a different set of master recordings to an acquaintance, Jeff Morris, who was amazed to find them sitting in Lehrer’s basement. When Morris tried to offer assurances he would care for the tapes, Lehrer said, “I don’t care! They’re not worth anything to me.”
Note: The Buzzfeed article claims that Lehrer gave Morris the tapes but this has been disputed by Morris himself who said that Lehrer lent him the tapes and did expect them back.
Because of these stories and others like these, those like myself that have long followed Lehrer’s career were not shocked by the news he had released his lyrics and much of his music into the public domain.
However, that’s not exactly what happened. Lehrer didn’t dedicate his worth to the public domain for a simple reason: He couldn’t.
Instead, he had to do the next best thing.
The Public Domain in Practice
If you look at the actual site Lehrer posted his works on, you’ll find that there’s no dedication of them to the public domain, instead, the relative passage reads as follow:
All the lyrics herein should be treated as though they were in the public domain.Tom Lehrer
The reason he didn’t simply say, “These works are dedicated to the public domain” or “These works are licensed to the public domain” is because there’s no certain way to do it. Even the Creative Commons CC0 is a waiver of rights, not a dedication to the public domain. Even then it’s only “to the extent allowed by the law.”
There are a lot of conflicting theories about how and if one might dedicate a work to the public domain, but one of the problems is that any such dedication could be seen as an “unenforceable promise” and one that could be revoked at any time.
This could be an issue down the road if Lehrer’s heirs decide to try and exploit his work again. To that end, he’s created the Tom Lehrer Trust 2000. Though not expressly stated, it’s presumed that this trust will inherit any rights to his works and continue to enforce his wishes by not enforcing his rights.
It’s a brilliant workaround from a brilliant mind. It ensures that his works will be available for all, as per his wishes, until they lapse fully into the public domain 70 years after his death.
To be clear, this is pedantry at its finest (or worst). Functionally, his lyrics are in the public domain as well as all of the music he has provided. However, this does highlight the challenge of trying to place your works in the public domain.
Though I consider myself pro-copyright, that comes from a belief that creators should be free to do with their work as they wish. Lehrer clearly wishes to place his work in the public domain but, instead, had to settle for this workaround.
To that end, Lehrer was right to be concerned. We have seen how the estates of great artists have gone against the express wishes of the artists they represent. For example, Ray Charles’ children famously fought and won the right to defy their father’s wishes that royalties from his music go to the Ray Charles Foundation.
As an artist, Lehrer is in a unique position where he is able to head off such issues.
Still, one can’t help but feel that it should be much easier to assign a work to the public domain. However, with copyright, it’s often nearly impossible to fully give something away.