The lawsuit cites a study by a musicologist stating this version of the song is essentially the same as the one published in 1948, whose copyright — if it was ever valid — would have expired in 1976.
Last year, a federal judge ruled that the long-claimed copyright to the song “Happy Birthday to You” was invalid. Now the same could happen for another iconic tune: “We Shall Overcome.”
On Tuesday, the We Shall Overcome Foundation, a nonprofit group that works with orphans and the poor, sued the music publishers who control “We Shall Overcome,” seeking a declaratory judgment that the song is not under copyright and is in the public domain.
The case, which was filed at U.S. District Court in Manhattan, also asks for the return of an unspecified amount of licensing fees that the publishers, the Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music, have collected.
According to the lawsuit, “We Shall Overcome” is an adaptation of a spiritual called “We Will Overcome,” which was first mentioned in print in 1909 in The United Mine Workers Journal. By midcentury it was firmly established as a protest hymn, and its role as an anthem of the civil-rights movement led the Library of Congress to declare it “the most powerful song of the 20th century.”
Pete Seeger, who was associated with the song for decades, published a version of “We Will Overcome” in 1948, in a periodical called People’s Songs, and said it was unknown exactly how “Will” became “Shall” in the song’s title. (“It could have been me with my Harvard education,” Seeger wrote.)
Ludlow, the publisher, filed a copyright registration for “We Shall Overcome” in 1960, but the lawsuit claims that this registration covers only an arrangement of the song and some verses. The lawsuit cites a study by a musicologist stating this version of the song is essentially the same as the one published in 1948, whose copyright — if it was ever valid — would have expired in 1976.
The lawsuit began with an effort to license the song for a film. According to the lawsuit, the We Shall Overcome Foundation contacted the publishers several times for permission to use “We Shall Overcome” in a planned documentary about the song but was rejected.