California Intellectual Property Blog


“We Shall Overcome” Copyright Lawsuit Moves Forward

constitution-flagLos Angeles – A judge in New York last week ruled in favor of allowing a copyright lawsuit challenging the copyright of “We Shall Overcome”. The song is a civil rights anthem and protest song. The lawsuit claims that lyrics in the song have been taken from other songs, such as African-American spirituals, and thus the copyright was never valid.

Plaintiff argues that the other songs have been in the public domain, so “We Shall Overcome” is not original and it should also be in the public domain. The lawsuit was filed earlier this year against the Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music which are the entities that have controlled the use of the song since the 1960s. For example, the film “The Butler” paid $100,000 for the right to use the song in the movie. The production team from the movie has since joined the lawsuit.

The Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music say that all the royalties from “We Shall Overcome” go to the Highlander Research and Education Center. The center uses the proceeds to preserve civil rights documents. They also use the money for promotion of art and research in the African-American community. As a result of the judge’s ruling, the Ludlow Music company will have to take legal action to defend its rights to the song.

The lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” have changed over the years. Since its 1960 copyright registration, verses have been changed along with a few of the lyrics. Pete Seeger recorded his own version in 1963 and obtained a copyright for it, at the time claiming that it was sufficiently original, which would merit its own copyright.

“We Shall Overcome” has been an anthem and protest song since its creation back when slaves were legal. In the 1940s, African-American protestors sang the song on the picket lines in the southern United States. It was used over and over during the civil rights movement beginning in 1959, and continues to be used in recent years during vigils in response to gun violence.

Although the decision moves this case forward, it isn’t a total victory. The decision rejected some claims that could make it difficult for the plaintiff to collect monetary damages.


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