After the success of releasing “Happy Birthday” from old copyright arrangements New York lawyers are convinced that they can do the same for a couple of protest songs: “We shall overcome” and “This land is our land“ and free them for public use.
Mark Rifkin, one of the lawyers involved, says “There is a strong emotional element to these cases” as he seeks a judicial declaration that the songs belong in the public domain.
The case started when film-makers from a faith-based, non-profit organisation wanted to use We shall Overcome in a civil rights film documenting the history of the song and were asked to pay $100,000.
The lawyers claim that the song is an adaptation of an African-American spiritual with the same melody and similar lyrics sung in the late 19c.
Peter Seeger, the folk singer, registered the copyright in 1948 but that expired in 1§976. He regularly admitted that he was not the author (but no doubt collected royalties).
The lawsuit over This Land has been filed by members of a band from Brooklyn which fears it can’t release it without a licensing fee being paid.
The lyrics were written by Woody Guthrie in 1940. His daughter Nora insists that the copyright isn’t about money but “it has to do with protecting it from Donald Trump, protecting it from the Klu Klux Klan”.
The problem with folk songs, and blues songs for that matter, is that they are all derivative with singers claiming they wrote them when they didn’t. Only recently we had the Led Zeppelin case of “Stairway to Heaven“, not the first time the band had been accused of appropriating songs!