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Judge Rules that Civil Rights Movement Anthem “We Shall Overcome” is Outside of Copyright Control

‘We are gratified that the Court has put an end to this charade and given this iconic Civil Rights song back to the public’


“We Shall Overcome,” the well-known anthem of the Civil Rights Movement overcame copyright control on Friday when a New York federal judge ruled in favor of Wolf Haldenstein.

The lawsuit was filed against Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music in April of last year. It was filed by the legal team at Wolf Haldenstein, who previously dealt with ownership claims over “Happy Birthday to You.”

The plaintiffs claimed that “We Shall Overcome,” the iconic song of the civil rights movement, originated from an African American mystical before it was “taken” by folk singer Pete Seeger. They argues that “We Shall Overcome” was in the public domain. As a result, they believe that producers should not be required to pay the license fee – up to $100,000 – to use the song in films and television shows.

However, publishers noted that the licensing revenue was spent wisely – on the preservation of Civil Rights Movement documents as well as for research in the African American community.

Defendants pointed out the 1960 and 1963 copyright registrations and stated that they were “entitled to own their derivative works as sufficiently original and distinguishable from what came earlier.”


U.S. District Judge Denise Cote wrote that the plaintiffs “have offered more than sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption. They have shown that the Defendants’ 1960 and 1963 applications for a copyright in the Song were significantly flawed.”

“As a matter of law, the alterations from the PSI Version are too trivial,” writes the judge, referring to a version published in the 1940s.

Cote continues, referring to the 1940’s version of the song, “As §101 of the Copyright Act teaches, a judgment about modification to an original work must be based on a consideration of the derivative work ‘as a whole.’ More specifically, the changes of ‘will’ to ‘shall’ and ‘down’ to ‘deep’ and the melodic differences in the opening measures and the seventh measure, do not create a distinguishable variation. These differences represent ‘variations of the piece that are standard fare in the music trade by any competent musician.’”

She adds, “The record shows that the listed authors of the Copyrighted Song were well aware of the historic and to them venerable roots of the Song. They sought to copyright the Song in order to protect it from undesirable commercial exploitation. In opposing this motion, the Defendants emphasize their own and the listed authors’ virtuous motives. But, unless Verse 1/5 qualifies as a derivative work under the ordinary application of copyright law, that protection is unavailable for that verse. These principles regarding the creation of copyright protection for derivative works apply equally whether the original work is humble or distinguished and whether it is noble or quite the opposite. The gap in the proof of originality cannot be filled by good intentions.”

In the future, a trial may be held to determine who originally authored the song and whether or not there was fraudulent activity involving the Copyright Office.

Plaintiff attorney Randall Newman commented after the ruling, “We are gratified that the Court has put an end to this charade and given this iconic Civil Rights song back to the public.”


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