NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” which has been quoted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was made popular by folk singer Pete Seeger, has been declared a part of public domain.
Ludlow Music, the song’s publisher, agreed in a New York federal court last week to back down on claims of copyright after losing a summary judgment in the case. The publisher said in a stipulation filed last Friday that it waived the right to appeal the judge’s opinion and agreed the melody and lyrics are “dedicated to the public domain.”
The lawsuit was filed by the We Shall Overcome Foundation, a group that wanted to make a documentary about the song, and Butler Films, which produced the 2013 film “The Butler.”
The origins of the song are unclear, but precursors outlined in the lawsuit include hymns and African-American spirituals. In the 1940s, a song called “We Will Overcome” was used by striking tobacco workers in South Carolina. That song was then taught at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, an educational center that trained labor organizers as well as civil-rights leaders including King, Rosa Parks and John Lewis.
Ludlow filed for copyright of a version of the song in 1960 and again in 1963 to add Seeger’s name as a co-writer, although he later asked to be removed from the copyright. Proceeds from the writers’ royalties are provided to the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee for a scholarship for art, cultural and activism projects in African-American communities.
In September, a federal judge ruled that the melody and lyrics of the copyrighted version are not sufficiently original to qualify as a derivative work entitled to copyright.