Copyright for US civil rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’ challenged

Makers of documentary claim song should be in public domain

Reuters April 13, 2016
We Shall Overcome was published in September 1948 by late American singer Pete Seeger. PHOTO: FILE

NEW YORK: Lawyers who successfully challenged the copyright to the Happy Birthday song have a new target: the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome. In a class action lawsuit filed in the New York federal court, makers of a planned documentary have asked a judge to declare the protest song as public property, allowing anyone to use it without paying licencing fees. The lawyers who filed the case — from the firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz — won a similar ruling last year that  declared the world’s most popular tune, Happy Birthday, as not subject to copyright.

The instant lawsuit was filed against New York’s The Richmond Organization (TRO) and its label, Ludlow Music Inc. According to the complaint, TRO filed copyrights for We Shall Overcome in 1960 and 1963 and has collected millions of dollars in fees over the decades. The song was closely associated with the civil rights movement during the 1960s and is likely based on an old African-American spiritual, according to the lawsuit.

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The We Shall Overcome Foundation is seeking to produce a documentary film about the song and its relationship to the civil rights movement. The plaintiff asked for permission to use the music in the film but was turned down by TRO. “This was never copyrightable to begin with,” Mark Rifkin, the lead attorney, said in a telephonic interview. “The song had been in the public domain for many, many years before anyone tried to copyright it.”

In February, Warner/Chappell Music — a unit of Warner Music Group — agreed to pay $14 million to end the Happy Birthday lawsuit and drop its copyright claim to the song. 

Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th,  2016.

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