Benjamin Appelbaum, Attorney at Law

Disputed song copyright legal case depends on two words

The song "We Shall Overcome" associated with the civil rights movement is known to many New Jersey residents. Although based upon an old African-American spiritual, people claiming copyright to the more recent version asserted their rights by declining to license the song for use in a movie. The resulting legal case pitted plaintiffs who argued that the modern version should be in the public domain against those insisting that the modern authors made enough changes to the original to qualify for copyright protection.

A district court has allowed the case to advance, but the documentation indicates that the new and old versions differ by only two words. The modern version uses "shall" instead of "will" and replaces the phrase "down in my heart" with "deep in my heart." The defendants agree that later authors did not alter the melody of the song. Both versions of the song spring from the melody "O Sanctcissima,", a Catholic hymn from the 18th century. In the view of the plaintiffs, the changes to the song as it was published in the 19th and 20th centuries represent only trivial alterations undeserving of copyright protection. The law does allow for a work of authorship derived from an earlier work to become copyrighted, but the derivation must represent something new and original.

Intellectual property litigation like this illustrates the lengths that parties might take to protect ownership of valuable assets. A person or organization that needs to challenge another party's unlicensed use of intellectual property could ask a lawyer for guidance.

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Benjamin Appelbaum, Attorney at Law - Intellectual Property

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