Wolf Haldenstein Frees the Iconic Civil Rights Anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome’

A Legal Battle to Free ‘We Shall Overcome’ the U.S.’s Most Powerful Song

After the global success of freeing ‘Happy Birthday,’ the world’s most famous song, Wolf Haldenstein began the legal battle of freeing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ the U.S.’s most powerful song, according to the Library of Congress.

In We Shall Overcome Foundation v. The Richmond Organization, Inc. (TRO Inc.), et al., plaintiffs sought a declaration that The Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, Inc., (the “Defendant’s”) did not  own a copyright to ‘We Shall Overcome’. The Complaint was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in April 2016 and is presided over by Judge Denise Cote.

Two months after the original Complaint was filed, producers from the film ‘The Butler’ joined as plaintiffs which resulted in a newly filed Amended Complaint. The Amended Complaint stated that ‘The Butler’ producers planned on using ‘We Shall Overcome’ in several critical scenes, including scenes depicting the 1963 riots in Birmingham, Alabama, the 1965 riots in Selma, Alabama, the conflict that year at the Pettus Bridge, and the 1968 riots in Washington following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The producers repeatedly sought to obtain permission from the Defendant’s but were repeatedly stonewalled. After much persistence, the Defendant’s responded by advising ‘the Butler’ producers it would cost $100,000 to use the civil rights anthem in a historic film about the civil rights movement.

In November 2016, Wolf Haldenstein cleared a significant hurdle to return the civil rights anthem to the public. In a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision, Judge Cote denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ federal claims seeking to invalidate the copyright to ‘We Shall Overcome.’ This ruling was a major step in the plaintiffs’ effort to return this historic and important song to the public, where it belongs.

Then in a summary judgment motion filed in mid-2017, Wolf Haldenstein argued that the 1960 and 1963 copyright registration filed by the Richmond and Ludlow in their effort to copyright ‘We Shall Overcome’, a song that was already in the public domain for years, was flawed and they therefore do not own the copyright. In a ruling issued on September 8, 2017 Judge Cote agreed, holding that the 1960 and 1963 versions of the song lacked originality and were not eligible for copyright protection. Judge Cote’s decision frees “We Shall Overcome” from an unlawful copyright held for over half a century and returns the iconic Civil Rights song back to the public domain, where it should have remained. There are still outstanding matters remaining that will be addressed at trial. See a copy of Judge Cote’s summary judgment ruling here.