U.S. civil rights anthem 'We Shall Overcome' now in public domain

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The lyrics and melody of “We Shall Overcome” are now part of the public domain, following the settlement of a copyright lawsuit over the civil rights anthem long associated with the late folk singer Pete Seeger.

Friday’s settlement came 1-1/2 years after another familiar song whose copyright status was disputed, “Happy Birthday,” was declared in the public domain.

It followed a decision Sept. 8 by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote in Manhattan striking down copyright protection for the lyrics and melody of the first verse of “We Shall Overcome.”

That verse, whose words repeat in the fifth verse, includes the lyrics “We shall overcome/We shall overcome some day,” and “Oh deep in my heart I do believe/We shall overcome some day.”

A trial on other issues was scheduled to begin next month.

The lawsuit had been filed in April 2016 by the nonprofit We Shall Overcome Foundation and producers of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” who paid to use the song in that 2013 movie, against the publishers Ludlow Music and Richmond Organization.

“We are extremely gratified to achieve a victory of this importance, for a song that has so much meaning for so many people,” Mark Rifkin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview.

The settlement puts the lyrics and melody of the 1960 and 1963 versions of “We Shall Overcome,” which respectively have five and eight verses, in the public domain.

Seeger is credited with writing verse two of both versions, and verse eight of the later version, Rifkin said.

The song’s origins are unknown, but Cote has said it might have dated to an 18th-century hymn or a later black spiritual.

Songwriter royalties have been donated since the early 1960s to the Highlander Research and Education Center, a nonprofit social justice and cultural center in New Market, Tennessee.

Ludlow said it is retaining a copyright on the song’s musical arrangement.

“Good people marching in the South took great comfort in singing this song together in the face of hatred and adversity in the struggle for social justice and equality in our country,” the publisher said in a statement.

But it also warned that the words and melody might now be employed in “inaccurate historical uses, commercials, parodies, spoofs and jokes, and even for political purposes by those who oppose civil rights for all Americans. This is the saddest result of this case.”

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman