One of the most iconic protest songs of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” is now the subject of a lawsuit that challenges The Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music’s ownership of the song and asks that the court rightfully place “the most powerful song of the 20th century” (according to the Library of Congress) in the public domain. Isaias Gamboa, founder and president of the We Shall Overcome Foundation has filed a class action lawsuit.
Since 1960, the publishing company has claimed ownership of “We Shall Overcome,” collecting untold millions in licensing fees and royalties for a song that, unbeknownst to the world, they never legally owned or controlled, according to Gamboa’s camp. In addition, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, along with Guy Carawan, Frank Hamilton, and Zilphia Horton have listed their names as “adapters” of the song and collected the other half of the royalties, notes Gamboa.
In 2012, Gamboa wrote a book about the history of the song in We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil’s Tongue. Now, he’s working on a documentary based on his research. When he contacted the song’s publishers, “they actually prevented me from using the song in the film, which I wasn’t expecting,” he says.
Knowing the song’s origins, Gamboa says he couldn’t understand why “We Shall Overcome” would be copyrighted in the first place. “It was always a derivative work,” he says,” and was based on a spiritual.
What’s more, Gamboa claims to have explicit evidence proving who is the true original author. That person is an African American woman, Louise Shropshire, a close friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Gamboa says King asked her if he could use her song for the civil rights movement. Gamboa’s objective in filing this historic lawsuit is for “We Shall Overcome” to be forever placed in the public domain by a federal judge.
He is being represented by Randall Newman and Mark Rifkin of Wolf Haldenstein in New York. Most recently, these same lawyers were successful in returning the song, “Happy Birthday” to the public domain and winning a $14 million settlement.
Adding further historical context, NPR reports that in the 1940s, African American tobacco workers sang a version of the song on the picket lines in South Carolina. They introduced the song at the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee and music director, Zilphia Horton then introduced the song to Pete Seeger, who helped turn it into an international protest anthem. In the early 1960s, Ludlow Music registered “We Shall Overcome” as an “unpublished derivative work.” Gamboa claims this copyright only covers some new verses and an arrangement, not the original melody and lyrics.
According to NPR, in a 1993 book, Seeger said he and the others only signed the copyright to protect its legacy. The defendants declined to be interviewed but released a statement to NPR, writing the lawsuit “goes too far and attempts to nullify the contribution of these authors which brought into being the iconic song we know today.”