The civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" may soon be in the public domain by virtue of a class action filed over fair use of the song. In a lawsuit filed in Manhattan Federal Court on Wednesday, the non-profit group We Shall Overcome Foundation claims that music publishers Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music Inc. have improperly enforced their 1960 and 1963 registered copyrights on the song.
According to the foundation, the song is an adaptation of an earlier spiritual with the same melody and almost identical lyrics for the first verse. The song's first printed reference is in a 1909 edition of the United Mine Workers Journal, which references the song being sung after prayer during strike meetings, according to the lawsuit. The suit also casts a shadow on the legitimacy of the 1960s-era copyrights of the song, noting that a version of "We Shall Overcome" was included in the folk song periodical "People's Songs" in 1946. Further, folk singer Pete Seeger, who published the periodical, has claimed not to have written the song.
It also referenced a 1959 phonograph narrated by Charlton Heston on the biblical Exodus, in which a chorale version of the song is heard.