Better Take Cover

Men at Work have just lost a case brought by Larrikin Music, a song publisher who bought the copyright of “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree” from the Australian Girl Guides in 1990 and in July 2009 claimed that the flute riff in “Down Under” plagiarised it. Colin Hay and Ron Strykert are now facing a payout of up to sixty percent of their writers’ earnings from the song, depending on the judge’s final ruling.

Writing songs with a mate down under,
Looked around for some riffs to plunder.
Said to him, “Do you think we’ll risk it?”
He just smiled and handed me a Girl Guide biscuit.

And I said, “Ohhh! ‘Kookaburra’ is huge down under,
And one man’s ‘quote’ is a judge’s ‘blunder’.
Can’t you hear the reporters thunder?
We better run, we better take cover.”

Flippancy aside, I can’t believe how annoyed the news has made me. The riff in question is a tiny quote within “Down Under”, so minor that the connection had never occurred to me before this story broke last year; and I’m guessing I’m one of the last generation of Aussie kids who would have grown up singing “Kookaburra”. Its key line is “Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra, gay your life must be”, and I can’t see that getting much of an airing post-1970s—not out of rampant homophobia, but out of embarrassment over any double entendres in children’s songs, which people avoid by not teaching them in the first place.

So if the 1970s were more or less “Kookaburra”’s last laugh, even that tiny quote would be the only way anyone nowadays would hear anything from it. “Kookaburra”’s author died in 1988, so her only immortality is in the memories of middle-aged-and-above Aussies like me... and in those few notes in “Down Under”.

Even if it was a conscious rip-off (which it almost certainly wasn’t), who wants to see Hay and Strykert bankrupted for the sake of a copyright that has long since left a dead songwriter’s ownership? In the grand scheme of things, “Down Under” matters more to Australia than “Kookaburra”, the legal wranglings of lawyers looking for their “My Sweet Lord” moment notwithstanding.

Kookaburra’s writ in the Old Bai-ley,
Merry, merry king of the flute is he,
Laugh, IP lawyers, laugh, IP lawyers,
Pay for you must we.

(Okay, so they were Sydney lawyers. This scanned better.)

One scary thought is that the Wikipedia entry for “Down Under” was what tipped Larrikin off that they had a potential goldmine on their hands. In June 2009, before news of the case broke, it read:

The flute part in the song is based around the tune of “Kookaburra”, a well-known Australian children’s rhyme.

After a bit of hunting through the Wikipedia page’s edit history, this claim appears to have been added on 31 October 2006 by an anonymous contributor, and completely unsourced at that. I hope is proud of themselves. Their only Wikipedia contribution, yet! (I wonder who it was. The IP number just resolves to an Australian ISP, so the trail goes cold.)

Apart from Hay and Strykert, the big losers here could be the Girl Guides. Not only have they lost ownership of their old song, but their historical connection to it could lose them public sympathy as a result of all this. And who knows—if they are still singing it around the campfire, they could find themselves being chased for royalties. They better run.

5 February 2010 · Music

It comes as a massive surprise to me that this song was even copyrighted. It does all seem like a strangely mean-minded farrago.

Strangely, we were still singing the song at Guides in Edinburgh in the 1990s. With "gay your life must be" and all. None of us had ever seen a kookaburra.

Added by K on 14 February 2010.

Whoops, sorry K, didn't see your comment there. Must have switched off emailing when I was tinkering with the back-end last month. I'm surprised that Kookaburra made it all the way over here, although given the far-reaching power of the Guides, maybe I shouldn't be.

Added by Rory on 28 February 2010.