Does the song “We Shall Overcome” now belong to the world?
Recently, the copyright of “We Shall Overcome,” the theme song of the civil rights movement and one of the most emotionally powerful songs of more than one generation, has been called into question. A lawsuit filed by the nonprofit group known as the We Shall Overcome Foundation is seeking a judgment claiming that the song in not under copyright and belongs in the public domain. The suit, filed on behalf of a group that works with orphans and the poor, was filed at Federal District Court in Manhattan and seeks class-action status. The plaintiff is also asking for the return of licensing fees collected by the publishers, the Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music.
Music Important to the Community at Large
Like “Happy Birthday,” the iconic song that escaped its 80-year copyright status in 2015, “We Shall Overcome” is a famous song with an unclear creative history. As was the case with “Happy Birthday,” the suit began with an effort to license the song for a film. The We Shall Overcome Foundation contacted the publishers several times in an effort to obtain permission to use “We Shall Overcome” in a documentary they were planning, but were repeatedly rejected.
According to the current lawsuit, “We Shall Overcome” is an adaptation of a spiritual known as “We Will Overcome.” Though no one seems to know its precise origin, the song was first mentioned in print in The United Mine Workers Journal in 1909, in which it was referred to as “that good old song.” By the 1950s, “We Shall Overcome” had become entrenched as a hymn of protest and hope. It remains the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and has been designated by the Library of Congress as “the most powerful song of the 20th Century.”
The Fight over Copyright
Pete Seeger, associated with the song for many decades, published a version, still with the title “We Will Overcome,” in 1948 in People’s Songs. In 1960, the publisher (Ludlow) filed a copyright registration for “We Shall Overcome,” but the recent lawsuit claims that registration only covered one particular arrangement of the song and some of its additional verses. Further, the lawsuit asserts that the original copyright, if it was ever legitimized, has long ago expired.
A musicologist, who researched the matter at the request of the foundation, has concluded that the version copywritten in 1960 was essentially same song as the one published in 1948. The copyright of 1948, if ever truly validated, would have expired in 1976. The Richmond Organization has not responded to calls or emails by The New York Times seeking clarification.