Copyright Law

Suit claims 'We Shall Overcome' isn't entitled to copyright protection

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The lawyers who succeeded in putting the “Happy Birthday” song into the public domain are hoping their new lawsuit will do the same for “We Shall Overcome.”

Ludlow Music Inc. and the Richmond Organization filed copyrights for the song in 1960, but the song had been in the public domain long before that, according to the lawsuit (PDF). Reuters, Ars Technica, the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter have stories.

The song is based on an old African American spiritual that was referenced in the United Mine Workers Journal in 1909 as “that good old song, ‘We Will Overcome,’ ” according to the suit. Pete Seeger published a version of the song in 1948. The 1960 copyright registration covers, at most, only the arrangement of the song and some additional verses, the suit says.

The would-be class action was filed in New York federal court on Tuesday on behalf of the We Shall Overcome Foundation, founded by individuals who are planning a documentary about the song. The suit seeks the return of copyright fees, a declaratory judgment that the defendants don’t own the copyright to the song’s melody or familiar lyrics, and an injunction barring further representations of copyright ownership.

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