'We Shall Overcome' becomes public domain in copyright settlement

By Allen Cone
'We Shall Overcome' becomes public domain in copyright settlement
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson (C) is flanked by his sons, Jonathon and Jesse Jr., as they sing We Shall Overcome while being arrested on March 11, 1985, on the front steps of the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. They were demonstrating against the country's policy of racial segregation. Photo by Ron Bennett/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 27 (UPI) -- The civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome is now in the public domain as a result of copyright protection settlement.

Song publisher Ludlow Music on Friday agreed that the melody and lyrics of the song are "hereafter dedicated to the public domain."


That means that no one will have to pay a license fee for use of the song.

In 1960 and 1963, Ludlow Music registered copyrights for the melody. It said the song's authors -- including folk singer Pete Seeger -- made changes to earlier versions of the song.

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Last September, Judge Denise L. Cote of United States District Court in Manhattan, N.Y., ruled the key verse in We Shall Overcome wasn't under copyright for lack of originality.

Cote said the copyright registrations were flawed and that the song publisher hadn't identified the original work on which their derivative was based and it didn't clearly identify the differences.

She said changing "will" to "shall" doesn't make the Seeger version an original work.

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The publisher was facing fraud claims for charging the producers of Lee Daniels' film The Butler up to $100,000 for a license fee to use the song.


A trial was set for Feb. 5 and Ludlow agreed not to sue. But that wasn't enough for the judge and the legal team at Wolf Haldenstein, which was previously involved in a case that put Happy Birthday to You in the public domain.

So, Ludlow agreed that it will hereafter not claim copyright in the melody or lyrics of any verse of We Shall Overcome.

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"We are extremely pleased with the court's ruling today giving this iconic Civil Rights song back to the public," Waldstein legal partner Randall Newman said in a statement. "We were able to prove that any contribution the defendants made to the song -- as to which the evidence was equivocal at best -- lacked originality and was not copyrightable."

In a statement, Ludlow said unspecified royalties since the early 1960s had been donated to the nonprofit Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee for grants and scholarships in black communities.

"Without the same scope of copyright protection, Highlander's grants and scholarships will be deeply affected in the future," the statement said.

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