The iconic protest song, “We Shall Overcome,” is now in the public domain after a small team of primarily non-IP lawyers succeeded in having its copyright invalidated.
The settlement with publisher Ludlow Music, according to Law360, “which for decades charged fees for use of the civil rights anthem — came after nearly two years of class action litigation aimed at freeing the song from copyright protection.”
The suit, filed by the filmmakers behind “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and others who wanted to use the song, argued that “Overcome” was merely a repackaging of a century-old African-American spiritual, meaning it couldn’t be locked up with a copyright. Last fall, a New York judge agreed.
Under the terms of the deal, Ludlow Music will return the licensing fees paid by the plaintiffs and will no longer claim a copyright to the song. The tune, the publisher said, will be “hereafter dedicated to the public domain.”
Free at Last
The copyright invalidation of “Overcome” is the latest victory for lawyers from Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP, whose focus is social justice, consumer protection and labor law, reported the newsletter, and is rapidly becoming the authority for lawsuits aimed at proving that a famous old song should be in the public domain.
Those lawyers, Randall S. Newman and Mark C. Rifkin, famously won a court order in 2015 over the ubiquitous “Happy Birthday to You,” eventually securing a similar public domain agreement and $14 million in repaid licensing fees. That victory led to the “Overcome” case, as well as another pending case challenging the copyright to “This Land Is Your Land.”
In a telephone interview with Law360, Newman and Rifkin said they hadn’t exactly set out to corner the market on freeing famous songs — neither had done much copyright work prior to these cases — but that they welcomed their newfound niche.
“Please don’t call us the caped crusaders of copyright,” Rifkin joked. “But somebody has to hold owners accountable for misuse of a copyright like we saw in these cases.”
For the full Law360 story and links, go here.
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