Wolf Haldenstein Frees the Copyright to “We Shall Overcome,” the U.S.’s Most Powerful Song
On January 26, 2018, Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP achieved another milestone copyright victory, entering into a settlement dedicating the melody and lyrics of “We Shall Overcome” to the public domain. The settlement ends two years of hard-fought litigation over the song’s disputed copyright. Mark Rifkin and Gloria Melwani represented the plaintiffs, a documentary filmmaker and the producer of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in litigation captioned We Shall Overcome Foundation, et al. v. The Richmond Organization, Inc. (TRO Inc.), et al., No. 16-cv-02725-DLC (S.D.N.Y.) in federal court in Manhattan. Judge Denise Cote, who presided over the case, granted partial summary judgment for the plaintiffs in September 2017, finding that the melody and iconic first verse of the song were not protected by a copyright. The settlement makes that decision final and non-appealable and ends the copyright as to all the remaining verses of the song. Judge Cote approved the parties’ settlement shortly after it was entered. See the See the Settlement Order here.
In 2016, Wolf Haldenstein earned acclaim by ending the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You,” the world’s most popular song. Mr. Rifkin, along with partner Betsy Manifold, successfully represented the plaintiffs, an independent filmmaker and three musicians, in Good Morning to You Productions Corp. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., 13-cv-04460-GHK-MRW (C.D. Cal.), in federal court in Los Angeles. In September 2015, Judge George King granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs, holding that the defendants never owned any rights to the song. In 2016, the defendants agreed to forego an appeal, to dedicate “Happy Birthday to You” to the public, and create a fund of $12 million to repay those who licensed the song since 1949. The Firm’s accomplishments were praised worldwide. For the historic achievement, Mr. Rifkin and Wolf Haldenstein were named Trailblazers in Intellectual Property by the National Law Journal.
- Judge Allows Bid to Free “We Shall Overcome” from Copyright, Hollywood Reporter, November 21, 2016
- A Fight to Make Two Classic Songs Copyright Free to You and Me, New York Times, July 12, 2016
- ‘The Butler’ Now Involved in Effort to Free “We Shall Overcome” from Copyright, The Hollywood Reporter, June 2016
- ‘We Shall Overcome’ Should Belong to US, USA Today, May 2016
- Judge Rules We Shall Overcome Verse Not Valid Copyright, Hollywood Reporter, September 8, 2017
- “We Shall Overcome” Verse Not Under Copyright, Judge Rules, New York Times, September 8, 2017
- Song Publisher Agrees “We Shall Overcome” Is in Public Domain in Legal Settlement, Hollywood Reporter, January 26, 2018
- ‘We Shall Overcome’ Is Put in Public Domain in a Copyright Settlement, New York Times, January 26, 2018
- ‘We Shall Overcome’ in Public Domain, Publisher Agrees, Law360, January 26, 2018