In September 2017, the lawsuit between music publishers The Richmond Organisation-Ludlow Music Inc (TRO-Ludlow) and the We Shall Overcome Foundation (WSOF) and Butler Films LLC saw US District Judge Denise Cote’s ruling that placed the first and fifth verse of the time-honoured iconic protest song We Shall Overcome firmly in the publicdomain.
A hearing was scheduled for March 2018 to decide on verses 2, 3 and 4 of the 1960 version, and verses 7 and 8 of the 1963 version. The late folk singer Pete Seeger had been credited with writing verse 2 of both versions and verse 8 of the 1963 version.
However, it was announced on 26th January 2018, that a settlement had been reached between the parties that puts the lyrics and melody to both versions of the song into the public domain, and that the publisher would retain copyright on the song’s musical arrangement. A spokesperson for TRO-Ludlow said the litigation had become expensive and had cost far more than the song had earned back in recent years.
In a statement, the publisher said that songwriter royalties, since the early 1960s, have been donated to the Highlander Research and Education Center, a non-profit social justice and cultural centre in Tennessee. It also warned that the words and melodies might now be used in “inaccurate historical uses, commercials, parodies, spoofs and jokes, and even for political purposes by those who oppose civil rights for all Americans. This is the saddest result of this case.”
Lawyer for the plaintiffs, Mark C Rifkin, said that the settlement was an “enormously important achievement” which gave the song “back to the public where it belongs”; a sentiment echoed by Isaias Gamboa, Founder and President of the WSOF.
© George Chin LLB(Hons) 2018.
We Shall Overcome Foundation, et al. v. The Richmond Organization, Inc., et al., No. 16-02725