Civil rights anthem ‘freed’ from copyright

A recent legal decision in the US has ruled that ‘We shall Overcome’, one of the most well-known American civil rights anthems, is no longer subject to Copyright protection.

A derivative version of the song had been copyrighted in the US by Pete Seeger (a folk musician) but a US District Judge ruled that the derivative version did not have sufficient originality to warrant copyright protection.

The decision means that the song can now be performed and used without fear of legal reprisal.

A fuller report of the case and the background can be found on the Guardian on-line.

What’s the big deal?

This sort of claim raises interesting questions about the ‘chilling’ effect that copyright laws can have on creativity and historical reporting. To take the point, you only need consider who brought the action; a documentary maker and the production company behind the upcoming civil rights epic ‘The Butler’.

Using the upcoming film as an example, it seems that the fear of being sued for infringement of copyright in the Pete Seeger version (or not wanting to pay the ‘ransom’ for getting permission) meant that the film makers were unable to make use of the song at all, forcing them to omit an important aspect of the historic events that the film seeks to depict.  If the song had not been ‘freed’ then this would surely have been to the creative detriment of the film and also to the detriment of accurate depiction of historic events.

Although the song was ‘freed’ in this case, the potential problem is there to see. Judging when an infringement of copyright has occurred and, indeed, whether a work should in fact qualify for copyright, is a notoriously difficult and uncertain activity and it is therefore understandable if those in the creative industries are reluctant to make use of works where there is a chance that copyright might be infringed.

There is an excellent introductory BBC radio documentary on Copyright (Copyright or Copy Wrong?) by Richard Taylor, which picks up on this debate and is a recommended listen if you are interested!

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