Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property » We Shall Overcome’ Verse Not Under Copyright, Judge Rules

We Shall Overcome’ Verse Not Under Copyright, Judge Rules

11 September 2017

From The New York Times:

A federal judge on Friday struck down the copyright for part of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” saying that the song’s adaptation from an older work — including changing “will” to “shall” — was not original enough to qualify for protection.

The case is the latest one to cancel the copyright of a time-honored song that many people may well assume was available for anyone to sing, after “Happy Birthday to You” was declared part of the public domain last year. A similar suit challenging Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is pending.

The decision on “We Shall Overcome,” by Judge Denise L. Cote of United States District Court in Manhattan, concerns the first verse of the song, which contains the lyrics “We shall overcome / We shall overcome some day” and “Oh deep in my heart I do believe / We shall overcome some day.”

. . . .

 The song’s origins have been traced to spirituals at the turn of the 20th century. In 1960 and 1963, the publisher Ludlow Music registered copyrights for it, saying that the song’s authors — including Pete Seeger — had made changes to earlier versions of it.

. . . .

Last year, the song’s copyright was challenged by the makers of a documentary on the song’s history and by the makers the 2013 film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” who wanted to use part of the song in the movie.

Judge Cote granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs, saying that the song “lacks originality,” and in her ruling she focused on the changing of “will” to “shall.”

“This single word substitution is quintessentially trivial and does not raise a question of fact requiring a trial to assess whether it is more than trivial,” Judge Cote wrote. “The words will and shall are both common words. Neither is unusual.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Copyright/Intellectual Property

8 Comments to “We Shall Overcome’ Verse Not Under Copyright, Judge Rules”

  1. No more than if I were to make claim to someone else’s story after just changing some of the names, or someone else’s art/picture after running it through a color filter.

    There’s a song I’d love to use in my story that’d work perfectly with the changing of one ‘word’, but paying for the rights to use the song would cost more than what I’m expecting the story to make. As the song doesn’t make/break the story it’ll be just another idea left in the clippings folder.

    • Considering a lot of readers just skip over song lyrics (or, like me, compulsively read them but are annoyed at having to do so), I’d say it’s not too big a loss.

      I make playlists for my books of songs that I find fitting. I play the playlists to help get me in the mindspace of that story. Maybe I’ll put the playlist up on my website when the book’s released. I don’t think within the book is the place for songs, unless it directly impacts the plot in some way and it’s really important for the reader to know the lyrics to understand that impact.

      • Quite a few of John Ringo’s books come with chapter by chapter playlists at the end.

        He also cites a variety of songs within the narrative without actually quoting lyrics, though on occasion he will quote the lyrics for a song or two. The way he features the songs, the band’s should be paying him for the endorsements. 🙂

        • To consider, thank you! 😉

        • I wouldn’t take issue with playlists at the end of novels, since it wouldn’t interrupt the flow of the story. Quoting an entire song within the text of the story is what I find quite jarring and unpleasant. (I also don’t like those quotes to introduce each chapter that some people use, unless they’re fictional quotes used to enhance the world of the story, such as in Larry Correia’s Grimnoir books.)

          • When Ringo quotes lyrics it’s usually a stanza or two and it’s within the context of the story, usually one character citing it to another.

            As for chapter quotes, Robert Lynn Asprin’s Myth Adventures series has some of the wittier ones I’ve seen. They can do a lot to set the tone for the chapter.

            • (In my case it was kids/teens dancing (instead of the mopping they were supposed to be doing) to an old Helen Reidy tune. 😉 )

            • “They can do a lot to set the tone for the chapter.”

              That really depends on how the reader reacts to them. For you, they work. For me, aside from the in-universe made-up quotes, I’ve never found them to help in the slightest, and they usually hurt. (And this is true of even a lot of in-universe quotes, so even that depends on how they’re done.)

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