"We Shall Overcome" Verse Returned To Public Domain
The first verse of the iconic Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" has been returned to the public domain, thanks to recent court ruling.
A lawsuit challenging the copyright ownership of "We Shall Overcome," held by publisher Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music since 1960 and 1963, was brought last year by filmmakers of a documentary on the song's history as well as the makers behind 2013's The Butler, both of whom wanted to use the song in the film.
Plaintiffs, represented by Wolf Haldenstein, assert that the first verse of "We Shall Overcome" belongs in the public domain because its origins date back to an African-American spiritual popular early in the 20th century. It's long been a popular anthem associated with peaceful protest, and many assumed it was already in the public domain.
When Pete Seeger popularized "We Shall Overcome" in the 1960s, he allegedly changed the words of the verse slightly from "will" to "shall," which defendants argue was an original enough change to warrant a legitimate copyright on the song. U.S. District Court Judge Denise L. Cote, who made the ruling in a partial summary judgement on Sept. 8 in Manhattan, N.Y., disagreed. This returns the first verse of the song to the public domain, while a trial is still pending on the validity of the copyright of the entire anthem.
"This single word substitution is quintessentially trivial and does not raise a question of fact requiring a trial to assess whether it is more than trivial," said Cote. "The words will and shall are both common words. Neither is unusual."
This ruling follows the 2016 ruling returning "Happy Birthday To You" to the public domain, while another copyright case on Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is still pending.