Copyright for civil rights anthem 'We Shall Overcome' challenged

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The lawyers who successfully challenged the copyright to “Happy Birthday” have a new target: the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

In a class action filed on Tuesday in New York federal court, the makers of a planned documentary film have asked a U.S. judge to declare the protest song in the public domain, allowing anyone to use it without paying licensing fees.

The lawyers who filed the case, from the firm Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, previously won a ruling last year that the world’s most popular tune, “Happy Birthday,” was not subject to copyright.

Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed against New York-based The Richmond Organization (TRO) and its label Ludlow Music Inc.

According to the complaint, TRO filed copyrights for “We Shall Overcome” in 1960 and 1963 and has collected millions of dollars in fees over the decades.

A woman who answered the phone at TRO on Tuesday declined to comment and would not say whether the company had retained a lawyer to defend against the lawsuit.

“We Shall Overcome” was closely associated with the civil rights movement during the 1960s. The song is likely based on an old African-American spiritual, according to the lawsuit.

The We Shall Overcome Foundation, the plaintiff, is seeking to produce a documentary film about song and its relationship to the civil rights movement. The group asked for permission to use the music in the film but was turned down by TRO, according to the lawsuit.

“This was never copyrightable to begin with,” Mark Rifkin, the lead attorney for the plaintiff, said in a phone interview. “The song had been in the public domain for many, many years before anyone tried to copyright it.”

In February, Warner/Chappell Music, a unit of Warner Music Group, agreed to pay $14 million to end the “Happy Birthday” lawsuit and drop its copyright claim to the song.

Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown