The unofficial anthem to the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, 'We Shall Overcome', has moved closer to entering the public domain after a New York federal judge rejected a publisher's bid to dismiss a claim that the song was not under copyright protection. The song has been revived in use across the US in recent years for numerous vigils in response to the rise in gun violence which has occurred throughout the country.
The claimants in the case who are seeking to challenge the validity of the copyright are the We Shall Overcome Foundation. They were joined by the production company behind Lee Daniels' film 'The Butler' which sought to feature the song heavily in the film before being informed of the $100,000 price tag should they wish to do so.
The defendants, The Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music, who have retained the commercial control of the song since copyright registrations have argued that the copyrighted version of the song was sufficiently original to merit protection.
In 1960 Ludlow filed a registration for an "unpublished derivative work,". The lyrics to the song have been altered at various times and the defendants have sought to argue that even those minor changes are sufficient to establish a variation of the song which warrants copyright protection. However, according to the claimants at the time of the registration the song had already been widely use as an African-American spiritual hymn used as a song of protest by tobacco workers.
The New York federal judge hearing the case has ruled that the claimants have plausibly alleged that the first verse of the song had lacked originality and that the registered authors under Ludlow's copyright may not have made the changes to the lyrics at all.
In response to the decision, the lawyers for the Richmond Organization have commented that they will be able to show that the changes made to the version of the song which they hold the copyright too were both important and profound. The case is now set to proceed to trial.
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