Months after admitting the song “We Shall Overcome” was free for all to use, Ludlow Music, the publisher responsible for collecting fees every time someone used the civil rights song, was ordered to pay attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs who brought the case.

Although Judge Cote said that Ludlow’s defense was “not the kind of ‘objectively unreasonable’ case that leads to such fines,” she stated “the plaintiffs should be rewarded for enabling access to “an American treasure”…the type of lawsuit that should be encouraged in order to promote the purposes of the Copyright Act.”

In the case, plaintiffs were filmmakers who used the song in their movie; Ludlow publishing made a claim for royalties based upon a version of the song recorded in 1947; plaintiffs argued Ludlow’s version was a “mere repackaging” of an a very old African-American spiritual, which meant the song should be in the public domain. In September 2017, Judge Cote agreed, and in January of 2018 Ludlow settled the case by agreeing that the “melody and lyrics of those verses of the song are hereafter dedicated to the public domain.” Similar songs, such as “Happy Birthday To You” and “This Land Is Your Land” have faced similar fates.

The award was not nearly as much as the $1.1 million sought by the plaintiffs, but Judge Cote did award costs and expenses in addition to the $352,000 in attorneys’ fees.

The case is We Shall Overcome Foundation v. The Richmond Organization Inc. et al., case number 1:16-cv-02725, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

* Lowe & Associates (“The Firm”) is a boutique entertainment and business litigation firm located in Beverly Hills, California. The Firm has extensive experience handling cases involving copyright law. Managing partner Steven T. Lowe has authored the “Death of Copyright” trilogy, the latest article of which, entitled “Death of Copyright 3: The Awakening,” was published in this summer’s Los Angeles Lawyer magazine.

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