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 Federal District Court in Manhattan and seeks class-action status, also asks for the return of an unspecified amount of licensing fees that the publishers, the Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music, have collected from the use of the song.
Like the “Happy Birthday” case, the “We Shall Overcome” suit tracks a famous piece of music through a murky early history and a complex paper trail of copyright registrations.
According to the suit, “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 as “that good old song.” By midcentury it was firmly established as a protest hymn, and its role as an anthem of the Civil Rights movement — even today — led the Library of Congress to declare it “the most powerful song of the 20th century.”
The suit asserts that the song’s copyright was never as broad as its publishers claimed, and has long since expired. 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 commented over the years that it was unknown exactly how “Will” became “Shall” in the song’s title. (“It could have been me with my Harvard education,” Mr. Seeger wrote in 1993; he died in 2014.)
Ludlow, the publisher, filed a copyright registration for “We Shall Overcome” in 1960, but the suit claims that this registration covers only an arrangement of the song and some additional verses. The suit cites a study by a musicologist, conducted at the request of the foundation, stating that 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.
A person answering the phone at the Richmond Organization’s office on Tuesday said the company would not comment on the suit, and the company did not respond to an email.
As with the “Happy Birthday” case, the suit began with an effort to license the song for a film. According to the suit, 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.
The foundation then approached lawyers at the firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, which represented a group of independent artists in the “Happy Birthday” case, according to Mark C. Rifkin, a lawyer at the firm.
Late last year, after a judge declared the “Happy Birthday” copyright invalid, Warner/Chappell, a division of Warner Music Group, agreed to pay $14 million to those who had paid to license the song since 1949.
Continue reading the main story