Who Owns 'We Shall Overcome'? All Of Us, A Lawsuit Claims The same law firm that recently succeeded in releasing "Happy Birthday" from copyright rules is now hoping to do the same for the civil rights anthem.
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Who Owns 'We Shall Overcome'? All Of Us, A Lawsuit Claims

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Who Owns 'We Shall Overcome'? All Of Us, A Lawsuit Claims

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Who Owns 'We Shall Overcome'? All Of Us, A Lawsuit Claims

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The most famous civil rights song is the subject of a new lawsuit. A complaint has been filed in New York federal court over the copyright to "We Shall Overcome." NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The song's roots go way back. It was a folk song, a protest anthem well before the civil rights movement, and it was a spiritual.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

THE MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: (Singing) We will overcome.

BLAIR: This is a version from the gospel group The Mighty Clouds of Joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

THE MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY: (Singing)We will overcome someday.

BLAIR: The history of the song is relevant to the lawsuit. It was filed on behalf of the We Shall Overcome Foundation, a nonprofit led by Isaias Gamboa. A few years ago, he wrote a book about the history of the song. Now, he's working on a documentary based on his research, so he contacted the song's publisher, the Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music.

ISAIAS GAMBOA: They actually prevented me from using the song in the film, which I wasn't expecting.

BLAIR: Gamboa says, knowing the history of the song, he couldn't understand why it would be copyrighted in the first place.

GAMBOA: It was always a derivative work, and it was based on a spiritual, you know, from back in the day, as they say.

BLAIR: So how did it get copyrighted at all? First, a little more history. In the 1940s, African-American tobacco workers sang a version of the song on the picket lines in South Carolina. They introduced the song at the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee, a meeting place for black and white labor activists. That's how Pete Seeger picked it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

PETE SEEGER: (Singing) We shall overcome someday.

BLAIR: In the early 1960s, Ludlow Music registered "We Shall Overcome" as an unpublished derivative work. That copyright names four people, including Pete Seeger. In his 1993 book, he said he only signed it to keep Hollywood from getting a hold of it. This new lawsuit claims the copyright only covers some new verses and an arrangement, not the original melody and lyrics, and the publisher shouldn't be collecting royalties. The song's publishers declined to record an interview for this story. In a statement to NPR, their lawyer says the lawsuit goes too far. He also said that 100 percent of "We Shall Overcome's" royalties goes to a fund that works with African-American communities to use art and activism against injustice. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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