Civil rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’ now in public domain, but will its reputation be damaged?
One of the great civil rights anthems in America and Australia ‘We Shall Overcome’ is now in public domain.
It ends a two year court case after the We Shall Overcome Foundation filed a lawsuit against Ludlow Music and The Richmond Organization (TRO) to free the song.
The song had been around since 1900 in some shape or form.
But in 1960 Ludlow and TRO copyrighted the well known version of folk singer Pete Seeger.
No one claimed Seeger wrote the song, as the actual writer is unknown.
But the publishers copyrighted the arrangement, figuring that they’d better do it before someone else did.
The publishers donated all its royalties to charities which provided scholarships to African Americans students and funds to express their cultural identity.
Ludlow was extremely protective of the song and legacy.
When the Hollywood movie The Butler wanted to use it, producers were told they’d have to pay $100,000.
In 2016, The We Shall Overcome Foundation (WSOF), led by music producer Isaias Gamboa, sued the publishers
The WSCF had been working on a documentary on the history of the song but was denied permission by Ludlow.
In court documents, The WSCF claimed that the TRO-Ludlow copyright only covered specific arrangements and, in any case, was invalid because it had not been renewed in 1976.
TRO-Ludlow finally gave up the fight.
But they warned of the consequences. One is that royalties to African American students would dry up.
The other is that the song would lose its impact as an important and emotional song of change.
Ludlow said in a statement. “Now, given its more limited copyright protection, any individual, corporation, or advertising agency may use the song’s words and melody in any manner they wish, including 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. In this era of hate and divisiveness, now more than ever.
“’We Shall Overcome’ should be a fully protected work and cherished as a national treasure.”
The song is said to have lyrically descended from a 1900 hymn by Methodist minister Rev Charles Albert Tindley called ‘I’ll Overcome Some Day’.
It was first used as a spirit-raising anthem by tobacco workers during a five-month strike in 1945 in Charleston, South Carolina.
In the ‘60s in solidarity with the black civil rights movement, folk singers as Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sang it at rallies and festivals.
In Australia, the freedom rides by Aboriginal activists and their supporters through racist segregated outback towns also used it as an anthem
Spanish speaking grape pickers in California sang it during a strike.
US Attorney General Robert Kennedy sang it from a car rooftop during a visit to apartheid-torn South Africa.
The phrase was constantly used in the speeches of activist Martin Luther King Jr and 300,000 sang it at his funeral after his assassination.
In the 1970s it was adopted by The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and by Eastern Europe nationalist, and political movements during and after the Cold War.
On January 20, 2009, banners proclaiming We Have Overcome were spotted after the inauguration of America’s first black president Barack Obama.
Roger Waters released a new version in June 2010 of the song as a protest against the Israeli blockade of Gaza
Bruce Springsteen performed it during the July 22, 2012 memorial-concert in Oslo after the terrorist attacks in Norway a year before.
He earlier recorded versions of it for the 1998 tribute album Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger and his own 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
It was used prominently in the 2010 Indian movie My Name Is Khan, about the problems that Muslims face in modern America.