Judge Throws Out 57-Year-Old Copyright On “We Shall Overcome”

from ars technica

A federal judge ruled (PDF) on Friday that the most famous verse of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” is not copyrighted.

The ruling is a decisive, but still incomplete, win for the two plaintiffs. One of those plaintiffs is a charity group called the “We Shall Overcome Foundation” that’s making a movie about the song, and the other is Butler Films LLC, a company that paid $15,000 to license just several seconds of the song for the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Plaintiff’s attorney Randall Newman hopes the two organizations will represent a class-action case composed of people who were charged royalties for using the song.

The foundation’s website says its film will demonstrate “extraordinary evidence that ‘We Shall Overcome’ was unlawfully misappropriated from the African-American Church and belongs in the public domain.”

Before he filed the lawsuit challenging the “We Shall Overcome” copyright, Newman successfully wiped out the copyright on “Happy Birthday,”putting that song in the public domain and collecting a $14 million settlement from its previous owner, Warner/Chappell.

More here.

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3 Responses to Judge Throws Out 57-Year-Old Copyright On “We Shall Overcome”

  1. Jimmy Bedoya September 22, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    Unfortunately, it is not uncommon or new for someone to be completely discredited and/or robbed of their original work. Many times in the past, people have taken credit and royalties for something that they, in fact, did not create or invent. Thomas Edison, for instance, stands as a very controversial figure due to many allegations. For quite some time, there has been a belief that Thomas Edison stole ideas and credit from other inventors. For example, Edison was credited for having created the fluoroscope, which initially made it possible to take x-rays of people. However, it is argued by many researchers that initially, a German scientist created a device to take pictures of people’s bones. Scientist, Wilhelm Rontgen, took an x-ray of his wife’s hand years prior to Edison’s allegedly unique fluoroscope. Whatever the case might be, it is evident that signs of false credit trace back as early as the 1800’s.

    In the article regarding the copyright of “We Shall Overcome”, issues of proper accreditation have arisen yet again. This case stands unique due to the fact that there are many different people who took royalties and credit for a song with origins unknown. On the verge of conclusion, it was decided that the original “We Shall Overcome” was different in context from the version published in 1948 with Pete Seeger as its chairperson. However, it was discovered that the copyright of Seeger’s version would not determine the decision made on this case because the copyright was never renewed. Then in 1960 and 1963 two different corporations, Ludlow Music and The Richmond Organization, made minor changes to the song and filed two copyright applications to try to gain royalties from the song. It is said, however, that the song came from African-American tobacco strikers who taught the song to Zilphia Horton, an educator and musician for Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School. She would then publish the song with the school and teach it to many students, including Pete Seeger. With all these new companies and individuals reaping benefits from this song, it is important to keep in mind that the original creator still remains unknown. Thus many people including Randall Newman, are arguing that because there is no official creator of the song, the song should be in the public domain. In response to improper accreditation, an organization was later formed known as the We Shall Overcome Foundation to try and rightfully credit the creators of the song. In the attempt of bringing light to the subject, the foundation was trying to create a film that suggested the origins of the songs and who exactly created it. Seeger being aware of his wrong accreditation, before the formulation of the We Shall Overcome Foundation, asked the companies for which he originally filed a copyright, that they remove his name as the creator. The companies refused to do as requested and when The We Shall Overcome Foundation tried to create an acapella version of the song for their film, they were rejected. Lawsuits are now being thrown from both ends, in which one suggests that the song be released to the public domain and the other suggesting the We Shall Overcome Foundation ripped of the Ludlow and Richmond Organization. In my opinion, I believe that what Randall Newman is trying to accomplish is the only way to bring justice to the song. It is unbelievably unfair that everyone but the tobacco strikers, who came up with the song, is getting credit and royalties. Every artist, no matter what art, should receive full credit and if not, at least some sort of acknowledgment and appraisal. I also believe what the We Shall Overcome Foundation is doing is extremely instrumental in trying to solidify who exactly came up with the song. However, they are no better than the other companies are for the fact that they too are trying to file a copyright. Thus, the only solution is to release the song to the public domain and let no one use it for profit or business use.

  2. Shiyun Ye September 29, 2017 at 9:52 pm #

    The successful lawsuit challenging the copyright on the famous song “We Shall Overcome” yet another song that has joined the ranks the happy birthday song to the public domain after years of being abused as copyrighted songs. The “We Shall Overcome Foundation” and Butler Films LLC were plaintiffs in a case to have the household song join the public domain, as the copyright on “We Shall Overcome” was more of a ploy to gain a quick few dollars by the owners than anything else. The defendants have forced multiple companies to pay tens of thousands of dollars just to use what could be mere seconds of the song, and yet they never had a hand in the creation of the song. It is sad that a company can extort other parties for a song they had no hand in just by changing two words in the entire song. The judge sites that the copyright applications put in during 1960 and 1963 were not original, and rightfully so, as there was only two words that differed between the 1960 copyrighted song and the original copy written song, with it being copy written in 1948. The song falls into public domain since the 1948 copyright was never renewed, and it has been practically robbery for people to earn money off of the copyright of a song they did not make, charging countless companies royalties for using what was seen as their song, Butler Films LLC, one of the plaintiffs, among them. The song is thought to have come from African-American roots, as there are multiple songs with similar titles created from African-American communities. The song has such humble roots, as the creator was apparently influenced by African American tobacco farmers to write the song, and it is saddening that such a beautiful and humble songs has been adulterated by a money hungry company, charging innocent companies for using a song they never created. The Lawsuit victory is not conclusive, as it could be appealed, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. The former owner of the song could also now have to pay a class action lawsuit, as there is precedent of such happening, like in the case of Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday too had an unjustified copyright, and once it was thrown out, a class action lawsuit left the owner of the thrown out copyright to pay fourteen million dollars. It is hard to say how much a class action lawsuit against the former owners of the song “We Shall Overcome” would cost, but it could be a satisfying ending to the gross misuse of a song that should have been in the public domain for decades already. The lawsuit also goes deeper, as the plaintiffs have accused the defendants, Ludlow and TRO of committing fraud as they neglected to sufficiently explain the origins of the son when applying for the copyright, potentially a large reason the copyright was granted in the first place. This is a prime example of companies manipulating the American copyright system, as well as the judicial system to earn money on an entity they had no right to control.

  3. Valerie Dorsett October 6, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

    There have many issues with copyright in the past. For many years the song “Happy Birthday,” was copyrighted so that is why in many movies they had to come up with a different song to use. This not only affected movies but businesses as well like restaurants, which could be sued if they sang happy birthday to their customers. I have been working in the restaurant business for a while now and have discovered that. Now, another song has fallen from copyright. Recently, a judge ruled that, “the most famous verse of the civil rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’ is not copyright,” which means that they rightful owner will not be allowed to collect money from anyone who ever wants to use his song. This song has been copyrighted for about 57 years long.
    I believe that is wrong because not many people can come up with their own ideas. The rightful owner of the song created it and had a right to make money off of it just like any other song that artists make. The article states that, “In a 66-page opinion, US District Judge Denise Cote held that the versions of ‘We Shall Overcome’ in copyright applications dated 1960 and 1963 were not ‘sufficiently original to qualify as a derivative work,” which means that his original copyright was not valid. There is also an argument about that “We Shall Overcome” sounds very similar to “People’s Song” which only changes around some of the words like “will” instead of “shall.” Now the court has to decide whether or not the rest of the verses from the 1960 and 1963 versions of the song are valid for copyright. This could result in a loss of money for the owners.
    No one truly knows where the original song was made. The article states that, “it could have originated from African-American spirituals with similar titles like ‘I’ll Overcome’ and ‘I’ll Be All Right,’ but the songs origins remain unknown. The story is that a lady who was a school teacher named Zilphia Horton, overheard people singing the song and she decided to write the lyrics down. The article adds, “Her husband entered into a contract with Ludlow Music on her behalf, which filed for a copyright registration, citing Zilphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, and Guy Carawan as authors of ‘New words & music Arrangement’ for the song,” which makes sense since his wife wrote it down and wanted it to be under her name since she passed away. I believe that anyone would have done this action. The current lawsuit started from a movie who wanted to use the song but then found out that only using a few seconds of this song would be very expensive. The court now has to go back an review whether they should keep this copyright or release it to the public. As I stated earlier, the song happy birthday lost its copyright to the court and was released for public use in recent years. The same thing will probably occur to the song “We Shall Overcome” unless they can prove to the court that is an actual original song. One can also wonder if companies are challenging these copyrighted songs because they already know the history behind it and know what they can argue to the court. The outcome to this decision will be interesting.

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