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'We Shall Overcome' Ruled Public Domain In Copyright Settlement

Jan 27, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In a few minutes, we'll meet one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. And that reminded us that, often, a movement becomes identified with a key word or phrase. In the civil rights era, that phrase was we shall overcome. Ironically, the song that gave rise to the phrase has become intertwined with prolonged litigation. But yesterday, a federal judge in New York signed an order that puts it into the public domain. Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: A couple of music publishing companies claimed that they owned the copyright on a version of "We Shall Overcome" from 1963. It's credited to a group of writers, including the late Pete Seeger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

PETE SEEGER: (Singing) We shall overcome.

KARR: But even Seeger knew that the song predated his version.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEEGER: It was known among the food and tobacco workers, mainly Negro union members. And I heard them singing it in 1947.

KARR: Last year, musician and filmmaker Isaias Gamboa filed suit to strip the song of copyright. He based his claim on years of research for a documentary film about the song's history. The case was set to go to trial next month until Gamboa laid out his evidence in a deposition.

ISAIAS GAMBOA: One of the things that I opened with is there's only one truth. And somebody here is telling the truth and somebody isn't.

KARR: Gamboa found lots of older versions of "We Shall Overcome." The judge in the case had already stripped copyright from the song's first and most famous verse. After Gamboa's deposition, the music publishers backed down. Now that the song's in the public domain, Gamboa says, anyone can use it, like the dance student who contacted him last year.

GAMBOA: He wanted to perform "We Shall Overcome" in a dance recital for his final. And his professor told him he could not do so unless he had a clearance from the people who were claiming the copyrights. And it broke his heart.

KARR: Gamboa says he's not interested in damages, but the judge still has one decision to make - how much money the music publishers, who collected well over a million dollars in royalties from the copyright, owe attorney's fees and court costs. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) We shall overcome, oh, Lord, one day. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.