Earlier this month, a class-action complaint was filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York in the case of We Shall Overcome Foundation v. The Richmond Organization, Inc. (TRO Inc.) et al. addressing ownership of “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem to the civil rights movement and a song the Library of Congress called “the most powerful song of the 20th Century”. According to the late folk singer Pete Seeger, the song became associated with the Civil Rights Movement in 1959, when Guy Carawan sang it at Highlander, which was then focused on nonviolent civil rights activism. Seeger and other famous folksingers in the early 1960s, such as Joan Baez, sang the song at rallies.
The copyright dispute against the two music-publishing companies, Ludlow Music and the Richmond Organization, seeks a judgment from the court declaring that the defendants’ copyright claim is invalid and ordering the defendants to disgorge previously collected licensing fees. According to the complaint, defendant TRO filed copyrights for “We Shall Overcome” in 1960 and 1963 and has collected millions of dollars in fees over the decades. The law firm for the plaintiff is Wolf Haldenstein, which was involved in the recent successful challenge to Warner/Chappell Music’s claims that it owned the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You.”
The filing argues that TRO-Ludlow’s copyright claims were invalid for several reasons: because it had not been renewed (as required by United States copyright law at the time), the copyright of the 1948 People’s Songs publication containing “We Will Overcome” had expired in 1976. Additionally, it was argued that the registered copyrights only covered specific arrangements of the tune and “obscure alternate verses”, that the registered works “did not contain original works of authorship, except to the extent of the arrangements themselves”, and that the registered copyrights stated that the works were derivatives of a work entitled “I’ll Overcome” which did not exist in the database of the United States Copyright Office.
The Brooklyn Law School Library has in its collection several items related to copyright and music. See for example All You Need to Know about the Music Business by Donald S. Passman (Call # ML3790 .P35 2015) which is on Course Reserve at the Circulation Desk. For more than twenty years, this book has been universally regarded as the definitive guide to the music industry. Now in its ninth edition, this latest edition leads novices and experts alike through the crucial, up-to-the-minute information on the industry’s major changes in response to today’s rapid technological advances and uncertain economy.