Country singer John Williamson says he'd rather go to jail than pay someone for the right to sing Waltzing Matilda. Williamson has led thousands of Aussie supporters at sporting events belting out the stirring song to boost our players. It's our answer to the All Blacks' fearsome haka. Aussie travellers sing it in pubs around the world. We sing it with pride on Australia Day. The song, written by bush poet Banjo Paterson in 1895 is a core ingredient of Aussie Culture.
Williamson spoke out after fears the iconic national song could be snapped up under trademark registration. Queensland independent Bob Katter said he'd introduce legislation to parliament that would reject trademark registration if it covers something of national significance.
But is their concern based on the reality of law? Stacks Law Firm lawyer Michael McHugh, who has a lot to do with Tamworth's country music festival, says no one is really able to own Waltzing Matilda or prevent people from singing it.
"Copyright subsists automatically. That means that once someone has written something down, it is automatically protected by copyright. There are of course rules about whose copyright it is, and how long it lasts. Literary and artistic works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. After that the work falls into the public domain. Therefore Waltzing Matilda is not owned by anyone. The public can sing it as much as they like without paying anyone royalties or breaching any Intellectual Property rules."
However a trademark is a different story. A Victorian film making company has successfully trademarked the words 'Waltzing Matilda' as a brand for their film production and cinematographic goods.
"But this does not affect other people using the words 'Waltzing Matilda' freely when depicting the history of Banjo Patterson such as the Winton Tourist Centre which is dedicated to Waltzing Matilda and The Waltzing Matilda Centre."
Mr McHugh says that when assessing whether to trademark your brand you must consider whether the words will affect the way people use everyday language. For instance, you generally can't trademark a city or common name because it would be infringed on a daily basis and would be unfair for those wanting to use the city or town name in the future.
"Copyright and trade mark ownership can be important business assets so it's a good idea to review what protections you have put in place and if in doubt, seek expert legal advice," Mr McHugh said.
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