Los Angeles (AFP) – Lawyers are seeking to put “We Shall Overcome,” the emblematic song of the US civil rights movement, in the public realm after successfully fighting the copyright of “Happy Birthday to You.”
The We Shall Overcome Foundation, a California-based Christian group active with street children in Brazil, filed a lawsuit as it worked on a documentary that would include the song.
The foundation said that two New York-based publishers, the Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music Inc., denied the right to use the song with the group at risk of paying a penalty of up to $150,000 if they violated the copyright.
“According to the Library of Congress it’s the most important song of the 20th century. It’s the unofficial anthem to the civil rights movement,” said Randall Newman, a partner at firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman, which is pursuing the case.
“We still hear people sing it in Congress. Bernie Sanders recorded it and sings it as part of his campaign,” Newman told AFP on Wednesday, referring to the Democratic presidential candidate.
The song — with the chorus that ends “Oh deep in my heart / I do believe / We shall overcome some day” — was commonly sung by protesters in the non-violent movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. against institutional racism.
The lawsuit said that “We Shall Overcome” came originally from African-American spirituals in the 19th century before becoming part a protest song of the labor movement in the early 20th century.
Ludlow Music filed to register the copyright of the song in 1960 and 1963, citing in part the new adaptation by the leftist folk singer Pete Seeger.
But the lawsuit quoted Seeger as noting himself the roots of the song and suggesting that he may have changed the lyrics from the original “We Will Overcome.”
The lawsuit said that the publishers at most can claim “extremely narrow” rights to reproduce specific arrangements of the song.
“Defendants either have silenced those wishing to perform ‘We Shall Overcome’ by refusing to grant them a license or have unlawfully demanded and extracted licensing fees from those unwilling or unable to challenge their false ownership claims,” it said.
The law firm was approached to take up the case after a successful legal wrangle on the rights to “Happy Birthday to You,” often considered the most popular song in the world.
Publisher Warner/Chappell Music in February agreed to a settlement that would effectively end protection for “Happy Birthday to You” in a lawsuit filed by makers of a low-budget documentary about the song who balked at paying $1,500.