'We Shall Overcome' the famous civil rights movement song, which has been called the most powerful song of the 20th Century has been the subject of a copyright dispute in the USA. A New York Federal Judge has now ruled that the first and fifth verses (which are identical) are no longer under copyright protection.
The action was brought as a class action and parties to it included the production company behind the film 'The Butler' who had wanted to use the song in the film but had baulked at the price tag. They were represented by the lawyers who had previously overturned copyright protection for the song Happy Birthday.
We Shall Overcome was popularised by the folk singer Pete Seeger in the 1940's where it was used as an anthem of the labour protest movement and was copyrighted by Mr Seeger. Though popularised by Mr Seeger, the first reference to the song was in a February 1909 edition of the 'United Mine Workers Journal' though it has also been traced back to a hymn by Beethoven.
The original song featured the words 'we will overcome' whilst Mr Seeger's version, and the version protected by copyright, had the words 'we shall overcome'. Lawyers seeking to defend the copyright said that this made the song easier to sing. The Judge deciding the case said that this did not demonstrate that the changes made by Seeger were sufficiently original to give rise to copyright protection. In this regard she agreed with the lawyers seeking to overturn the copyright registration who had claimed that the changes made were trivial and insignificant and were at most grammatical variations.
It should be noted that this decision was limited only to a finding in respect of the first and fifth verses. Other aspects of the case still need to be ruled upon, including a decision on who authored the song and whether or not this copyright registration was fraudulently obtained.in: Copyright, EU/International