“Happy Birthday” Lawyers Look to “Overcome” Another Copyright

Apr 29, 2016

Moving from the celebratory to the spiritual, the lawyers who (literally) brought you “Happy Birthday” once again find themselves looking to overcome entrenched copyright interests related to one of the country’s most well-known anthems.  Attorneys Mark C. Rifkin and Randall Scott Newman, who recently succeeded in bringing “Happy Birthday” into the public domain, are aiming for a follow-up hit, filing suit against The Richmond Organization (TRO) and Ludlow Music over the copyright to the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

TRO has held copyrights for “We Shall Overcome” since the early 1960s and has collected millions of dollars in fees for its use since then.  “We Shall Overcome” was popularized by folk singer Pete Seeger in the late 1940s and returned to prominence during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Seeger Did Not Write “Overcome”

Rifkin and Newman, as they did in the “Happy Birthday” case, assert on plaintiffs’ behalf that the song is derived from works pre-dating the copyrighted versions.  “We Shall Overcome,” they say, is virtually identical in its musical and lyrical composition to “We Will Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger published and copyrighted in 1948.  Thus, say Rifkin and Newman, “[b]ecause the copyright to the 1948 publication of People’s Songs, Reg. No. B184728, was never renewed and thus expired  in September 1976, … We Shall Overcome entered the public domain no later than that date.”

Origins of the Song Date Back to Early 1900s

The attorneys actually believe that the song entered the public domain far earlier.  Indeed, “We Will Overcome” is a turn-of-the-20th-Century African-American spiritual that Mr. Seeger freely admits learning from a friend.  According to a Library of Congress blog post from 2014, the song appears to have roots in two different songs from that period, one from which its lyrics are derived, and the other from which it draws its melody.  The individual(s) who combined the two, however, is not currently known.

Only time will tell whether Rifkin and Newman turn out to be one hit wonders, or whether they can “Overcome” once again.  If only there were a song they could use to motivate themselves…


[This post was written by Jason Horst.]