Saturday, March 30, 2024

The Enchanted Copyright History of Nature Boy

Frank Sinatra with eden ahbez (ahbez did not capitalize his name
 believing that "only God and infinity deserved capitalization.") 
Dear Rich: I wrote a poem using the entire song "Nature Boy" with the lyrics interspersed between my words, sort of a running narrative. Do I need permission to publish it in a book or other written form, or a video wherein the entire poem is recited? 
Yes, you would need permission to use all the lyrics from "Nature Boy." The song was first published in 1948 and the estate of the songwriter, eden ahbez (1908-1995), claims copyright (although the ownership has been disputed). The song won't fall into the public domain until 2043 (95 years after publication). We don't believe your use is exempt from permission because you are using all of the lyrics. Although some courts have granted fair use when copying complete works, the general rule is that when a large portion of the copyrighted work is copied, fair use is less likely to be found.
Are you flying under the radar? From a practical point of view, you are unlikely to run into a problem if your book publication is limited (under 100 copies) or your video fails to go viral. In cases of limited exposure like this, it is unlikely that the copyright owner would take action even if the infringement is discovered. However, if you plan for more exploitation or you don't want to risk a copyright lawsuit, you can contact the song's owner, Golden World, in Mather, California.
Even though you didn't ask ... The backstory for Nature Boy is an anomaly in the history of songwriters and copyright. The songwriter, eden ahbez, was considered a proto-hippie, living in a tent under the Hollywood sign in the late 1940s. He had composed several songs, when a DJ friend heard the autobiographical Nature Boy and suggested that ahbez show the song to Nat King Cole. ahbez rode his bicycle to the theater where Cole was performing. Cole's manager refused to deal with the songwriter. However,  Cole's valet took a copy of the song to the singer who loved it but didn't know who wrote it (ahbez didn't include his name). After investigators dug up the songwriter, the tune was recorded and stayed at number one on the charts for eight weeks. Over 230 artists have since covered it (including a duet by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga), and it was the centerpiece of two movies, The Boy With Green Hair and Moulin Rouge. After Nat King Cole's success, ahbez was accused of taking the melody from a 1935 Yiddish theater song, Be Still My Heart (ahbez was believed to be Jewish and grew up in a Jewish orphanage in Brooklyn). He settled the claim for $25,000 ($300,000 in 2024 dollars). The melody for the first section of Nature Boy was also the same as the second movement of Antonin Dvořák's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 

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