By Victor Ochieng
“We Shall Overcome,” one of the leading civil rights movement songs, is now the subject of a major lawsuit that’s challenging The Richmond Organization and Ludlow Music on the songs ownership. The lawsuit is also demanding that the court places the song, which is considered “the most powerful song of the 20th century” by the Library of Congress, in the public domain. The founder of We Shall Overcome Foundation, Isaias Gamboa, filed the said lawsuit.
The publishing company has claimed ownership of the iconic song and has reaped big from the song since 1960. The firm has been earning millions in royalties and licensing fees from the song. Unknown to the world, the company held no ownership of the song neither did they control it, according to Gamboa’s team. In addition to the company, reputable folk singer Pete Seeger as well as Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan and Zilphia Horton also have their names listed as “adapters” of “We Shall Overcome” song and have pocketed half of the royalties, claims Gamboa.
In his 2018 “We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil’s Tongue” book, Gamboa shed light on the song’s history. He’s also currently creating a documentary on the song based on his research. Although he reached out to the publishers of the song, they “prevented me from using the song in the film, which I wasn’t expecting.”
Well aware of the origin of the song, Gamboa couldn’t comprehend why and how “We Shall Overcome” could be copyrighted. He says the song “was always a derivative work,” adding that its basis was spiritual.
Interestingly, Gamboa is claiming that he’s got evidence pointing to the true author of the song. He says it was authored by Louise Shropshire, an African-American woman, who was a close friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For the song to be used in the civil rights movement, Gamboa says King had to ask Shropshire for her consent.
The main reason why Gamboa filed the lawsuit was to have a federal judge place the song in the public domain forever.
Gamboa is represented by lawyers Mark Rifkin and Randall Newman, the lawyers who most recently managed to return the song “Happy Birthday” to the public domain and won $14 million in settlement.
Shedding more light on the song’s history, NPR reported that in the 1940s, African-American tobacco workers in South Carolina used to sing a version of the song on the picket lines.
It’s in 1960s when Ludlow Music took a step to register “We Shall Overcome” as an “unpublished derivative work.” However, according to Gamboa, the copyright basically covers some newly introduced verses and an arrangement, but not the original lyrics and melody.