Anniversary Post: “Mary Had a Little Lamb”

Sarah Josepha HaleOn this day in 1830, the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was first published. I’ll provide some discussion of it in a moment, but first I want to talk about it in the context of copyright law. If the law had been then as it is now, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” would have still be under copyright at the beginning of 1949. Think about that. The first American steam train was produced in 1830. That was the cutting edge of transportation. And we would have had to wait until the dawn of the Space Age before this little rhyme was considered part of the public domain. After it was written, we lived through the Civil War and then World War I and then World War II. But according to current American law, the country had only then moved on enough for the rhyme to be considered part of our shared culture. Until then, it was simply property for some corporation to use to extract rents.

It was written — to one extent or another — by Sarah Josepha Hale. Born in 1788, she lived all the way to 1879, which is one of the reasons that the length of the copyright would have been so long. It was published as part of her book, Poems for Our Children. You can find out more about her in the birthday post I wrote about her, Sarah Josepha Hale Had a Little Lamb.

So happy 185th birthday to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Now let’s go fix our broken copyright system!

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