Lawsuit Aims to Free 'We Shall Overcome' Song From Copyright

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on April 19, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The song 'We Shall Overcome' is accustomed to struggle -- it is the anthem of the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. But now a new lawsuit aims to free the work from copyright. Appropriately, this protest anthem is the subject of a class action claiming that it cannot be owned and belongs to all.

The defendants are The Richmond Organization and its label Ludlow Music, which copyrighted the song in 1960. Notably, the plaintiffs are represented by the same firm that won us all access to the 'Happy Birthday' song, Reuters reports.

Owning a Moment

According to the lawsuit, The Richmond Organization filed copyrights for "We Shall Overcome" in 1960 and 1963. It has reportedly collected millions of dollars in licensing fees over the years, although the song is thought to be based on an old African-American spiritual.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Mark Rifkin, told Reuters that the song should never have been copyrighted, and could not have been owned by TRO. "This was never copyrightable to begin with," Rifkin said. "The song had been in the public domain for many, many years before anyone tried to copyright it."

The We Shall Overcome Foundation, a non-proft organization led by Isais Gamboa, sought to use the song in a documentary about its origins but was denied permission. Gamboa was surprised by the rejection and began reflecting on why he needed permission anyway.

A Derivative Work

Having already written a book on the song's origins, Gamboa was familiar with its story and curious as how to it ever came under anyone's ownership. "It was always a derivative work," he told National Public Radio, "and was based on a spiritual from back in the day, as they say."

Reportedly slaves in the early US sang "I'll overcome" in the field and later it was used during labor protests, sung by African-American tobacco workers picketing in South Carolina. Shortly thereafter, Pete Seeger was introduced to the song and he reportedly helped turn it into an international protest anthem.

According to Seeger, he and his colleagues were asked to sign the copyright request made by Ludlow Music to ensure the song's integrity. The company said it did not want the song co-opted by Hollywood types, who would put out a version like, "'come on baby, we shall overcome tonight.'"

The defendants in this case have thus far declined to speak to reporters, but they did provide a statement to NPR saying the suit goes too far and nullifies the contribution of authors who turned "We Shall Overcome" into the iconic song it is today.

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