Kookaburra (song)

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For other uses, see Kookaburra (disambiguation).
Written 1932
Writer Marion Sinclair
Language English

"Kookaburra" (also known by its first line: "Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree") is a popular Australian nursery rhyme and round about the Kookaburra (an Australian Kingfisher). It was written by Marion Sinclair (9 October 1896 – 15 February 1988) in 1932.[1][2]


Marion Sinclair was a music teacher at Toorak College, a girls' school in Melbourne she had attended as a boarder. In 1920, she began working with the school's Girl Guides company.[citation needed]

One Sunday morning in 1932, Sinclair had a sudden inspiration in church and dashed home to write down the words to "Kookaburra". In 1934 she entered the song into a competition run by the Girl Guides Association of Victoria, with the rights of the winning song to be sold to raise money for the purchase of a camping ground, eventually chosen as Britannia Park. The song was performed for the first time in 1934 at the annual Jamboree in Frankston, Victoria, at which the Baden-Powells, founders of the Scouting and Guiding movements, were present.[1]

Despite its "Aussieness", the song is well-known and performed around the world, particularly in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, where the Girl Guide movements in those countries have adopted it as a traditional song.[citation needed]

Copyright status[edit]

Marion Sinclair died in 1988, so the song is still under copyright, according to Australian copyright law. The publishing rights are held by Larrikin Music. In the United States, the rights are administered by Music Sales Corporation in New York City.

In June 2009, Larrikin Music sued the band Men At Work for copyright infringement, alleging that part of the flute riff of the band's 1981 single "Down Under" was copied from "Kookaburra". This action followed an episode of Spicks and Specks where this usage was the basis of a panel question.[3] The counsel for the band's record label and publishing company (Sony BMG Music Entertainment and EMI Songs Australia) claimed that, based on the agreement under which the song was written, the copyright was actually held by the Girl Guides Association.[4][5] On 30 July 2009, Justice Peter Jacobson of the Federal Court of Australia made a preliminary ruling that Larrikin did own copyright on the song, but the issue of whether or not songwriters Colin Hay and Ron Strykert had plagiarised the riff would be determined at a later date.[6][7] On 4 February 2010, Justice Jacobson delivered his judgment that Men At Work had infringed Larrikin's copyright, and that both recordings submitted to the court "... reproduce a substantial part of Kookaburra".[8][9] Larrikin subsequently petitioned the court to receive between 40 and 60 percent of the song's royalties backdated to 1981, but on 6 July 2010 Justice Jacobson awarded the company 5 per cent of royalties backdated to 2002—believed to be a six-figure sum.[10]

On 31 March 2011 an appeal by record company EMI was dismissed by Justices Arthur Emmett, Jayne Jagot and John Nicholas, who concluded there had been an infringement of copyright of the tune "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree". One of the band's songwriters, Colin Hay, said afterwards the result was disappointing and they would consider their position after reviewing the judgement more closely.[11] In October 2011 the band lost its final court bid when the High Court of Australia refused to hear an appeal.[12]

Cultural references[edit]

  • The song plays an important role in the 2006 Doctor Who episode "Fear Her".[13]
  • A parody of "Kookaburra" has remained popular in Australian schoolyards for over 3 decades: "Kookaburra sits on an electric wire, jumping up and down with his pants on fire. Laugh, Kookaburra, laugh, Kookaburra. Hot your pants must be."[14]


  • In 2010, an Australian primary school director, Garry Martin, asked school children to replace "gay your life must be" with "fun your life must be." After outcry from internet users that he was banning the word "gay", and from the Australian gay and lesbian advocacy group (Also Foundation), Martin tried to clarify his position. He stated: "All I was doing, relatively innocently, was substituting one word because I knew if we sing 'Gay your life must be' the kids will roll around the floor in fits of laughter." [15][16]


  1. ^ a b Adelaide Sunday Mail newspaper 1982 www.anzagl.org[dead link]
  2. ^ Howell, P. A. (2012). "Sinclair, Marion (1896–1988)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 10 August 2015. 
  3. ^ "Men at Work frontman slams court ruling". news.ninemsn.com.au. 5 February 2010. Archived from the original on 22 November 2011. Retrieved 22 November 2011. 
  4. ^ Davies, Lisa "Men At Work's Down under 'ripped off' Kookaburra", The Daily Telegraph, 25 June 2009.
  5. ^ Kontominas, Bellinda (25 June 2009) Riff row leaves Men at Work up a legal gum tree, Sydney Morning Herald, Accessed 26 June 2009.
  6. ^ "Men At Work accused of copying Girl Guides song". NME News. 30 July 2009. Retrieved 30 August 2009. 
  7. ^ Men at Work one step closer to losing royalties, The Age, 30 July 2009.
  8. ^ Arlington, Kim: Men at Work's Down Under ripped off Kookaburra: court, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 2010.
  9. ^ Men At Work lose plagiarism case in Australia BBC News Thursday, 4 February 2010
  10. ^ Madden, James: Men at Work avoid big royalties payout over origins of Land Down Under, The Australian, 6 July 2010.
  11. ^ Kookaburra gets the last laugh, The Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2011.
  12. ^ Associated Press in Sydney (7 October 2011). "Men at Work lose appeal over Kookaburra riff". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 9 October 2011. 
  13. ^ Fear Her, Doctor Who (BBC).
  14. ^ Razer, Helen: Band are victims of obstinate rule of law, The Age, 6 February 2010.
  15. ^ Simon, Mallory (3 September 2010) In Aussie school, Kookaburra sits in gum tree - but isn't gay. cnn.com, 2 September 2010. Retrieved 10 August 2015
  16. ^ Head teacher drops gay from famous Kookaburra song BBC News. Retrieved 10 August 2015

External links[edit]