Last week, the We Shall Overcome Foundation filed a complaint on behalf of a purported class challenging the copyright of “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement. The We Shall Overcome Foundation attempted to use the song in a documentary film, and the defendant copyright holders denied the request. The complaint argues that the song has the same lyrics and melody as a 19th century African-American spiritual, meaning that any copyright is limited to the specific arrangement or additional verses covered by the disputed 1960 and 1963 copyrights. The complaint contains claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as state law claims.
A similar case in 2013 (see our coverage here) challenged the copyright for “Happy Birthday to You.” That case was voluntarily dismissed, and a parallel case in California resulted in a settlement that made the song public.
The case is currently pending before Judge Cote.