We Shall Overcome No Longer Under Copyright
Written by Mekael Rahman on 12 October 2017« Return to Reading Room
The first verse of the civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome has recently been freed from copyright following the verdict of a New York federal judge. The said verse symbolises the spirit of protest and the anthem has been described as the “most powerful song of the 20th century” by the Library of Congress.
It was the same legal team who successfully disputed the longstanding ownership claims over Happy Birthday to You that brought the lawsuit against the existing copyright holders, namely, the Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music. The former claimed that We Shall Overcome was an adaptation of an African American hymn and consequently in the public domain. It was later adopted by folk singer, Pete Seeger and subsequently copyrighted. The pertinent lawyers leading the class action would direct the judge’s attention to Seeger’s 1963 memoir in which the singer articulated that he had been advised by his music publishers to copyright the song or “Hollywood types” would come up with their own version like “Come on baby, we shall overcome tonight.”
US district judge, Denise Cote affirmed in her decision that the existing copyright holders had failed to identify the original work on which their derivative was based. Furthermore, they were also unable to prove that the changes Seeger allegedly made to the first verse signified sufficient originality to warrant copyright protection.
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