Song Publisher Agrees "We Shall Overcome" Is in Public Domain in Legal Settlement

The fate of the iconic song is sealed after a ruling in September and aborts the need for a trial next month.
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Sing it loud. Be solemn about the struggles and indignities of life. But also sing it proud upon a hopeful future.

On Friday, a song publisher backed down on the claim that "We Shall Overcome" is under copyright. In a settlement that almost entirely assures that no film or television production will ever again have to pay a license fee for use of the iconic civil rights anthem, Ludlow Music has stipulated that the melody and lyrics are "hereafter dedicated to the public domain."

The settlement comes months after a federal judge ruled the key verse in "We Shall Overcome" wasn't under copyright for lack of originality. Ludlow, as well as fellow publisher The Richmond Organization, had argued rights to the song stemming from a derivative version in the 1960s, but U.S. District Judge Denise Cote determined the copyright registrations were flawed and that the song publisher hadn't identified the original work on which their derivative was based, nor did it clearly identify the differences.

Still, there were other verses in the song — plus many other legal theories. Even more significant, the publisher was facing claims for fraud after telling many including the producers of Lee Daniels' The Butler they would have to pay up to $100,000 for a license fee.

With a trial set for Feb. 5, Ludlow offered a covenant-not-to-sue and attempted to moot any controversy. That wasn't enough for the judge — and the same legal team at Wolf Haldenstein that previously freed "Happy Birthday to You" from the copyright control of Warner/Chappell insisted upon more.

And so, today comes the filing announcing a full settlement along with details about the terms.

Ludlow agrees that it will hereafter not claim copyright in the melody or lyrics of any verse of "We Shall Overcome."

The case isn't fully wrapped because plaintiffs' attorneys still have an application pending for attorneys' fees and expenses.

But the lawyers pushing the case are singing a happy song.

"We are pleased that this settlement resolves the litigation and puts the melody and all verses of the iconic song 'We Shall Overcome' into the public domain where it belongs," says attorney Randall Newman. "The Defendants can no longer prevent how this song will be used in the future."

The publisher had a different take.

 "This case will largely end Ludlow Music Inc.’s trusteeship of this song," wrote Ludlow in a statement. "Since the early 1960s, songwriter royalties from “We Shall Overcome” have been donated to the non-profit Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander created the We Shall Overcome Fund, which annually distributed 100% of the royalties in the form of grants and scholarships within African American communities, predominantly in the South. Without the same scope of copyright protection, Highlander’s grants and scholarships will be deeply affected in the future.

Ludlow added more:

"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."