A lawsuit has been filed in an American court to challenge the copyright on popular song “We Shall Overcome.”

How ethical is it to copyright commonly used songs?

The song “We Shall Overcome” was apparently copyrighted in 1960 by Ludlow Music Inc. and The Richmond Organization. A group of lawyers feel this is highly unfair. They have challenged this copyright, and are strongly demanding that these parties should return copyright licensing fees which they have collected over the years.

The lawyers argue that the song itself dates back much earlier than 1960, and is inspired from “an African-American spiritual with exactly the same melody and nearly identical lyrics from the late 19th or early 20th century.” Attorney Mark Rifkin said that the song “was never copyrightable to begin with. The song had been in the public domain for many, many years before anyone tried to copyright it.” The song “We Shall Overcome” has been integral to several civil rights movements.


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Similar copyright challenges around the world

The lawyers had earlier legally challenged and successfully reversed the copyright on the extremely common ‘Happy Birthday Song,’ which is pretty much sung at every single birthday party in the English speaking world. The tune and words are also used in other cultures as well; birthday parties in South Korea sing the same tune. In fact, music publisher Warner/ Chappell is now barred from claiming licensing royalties on those who sing “Happy Birthday” in public. In fact, the producer has been directed to pay back $14 million to those who paid for licensing until now.

However, the issue of copyrighting commonly held information and heritage does not limit itself only to music, nor does it exist only in the USA.

In India, civilians have been fighting similar battles against large corporate entities, who are attempting to grab exclusive rights to certain traditions. For example, in the late nineties, two American professionals attempted to patent the health and medicinal benefits of turmeric, an herb that is widely grown across India. In fact, turmeric has been prescribed as a natural antiseptic in age-old Indian medical knowledge. It is an important medical herb according the ancient Indian medical science of ‘Ayurveda,’ which has existed for centuries.

Suman K. Das and Hari Har P. Cohly, Indian-origin American researchers who worked at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, submitted a claim to the US Patent and Trademark Office. They asserted that they had discovered the medicinal qualities of turmeric. Shockingly, they successfully won a patent in March 1995.

Fortunately, India’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research asked the US Patent Office to reconsider the decision, which Indian authorities believed was a form of bio-piracy by the American researchers. The US Patent Office accepted that it was unfair to have a patent on Turmeric, and revoked the decision.

However, there is a flipside to the copyright of traditional music, knowledge and culture. Many feel that if traditional knowledge is copyrighted by the original population or culture that is belongs to, this can lead to conservation of the knowledge, and ensures that the world always gives due credit to the people who created it. Ironically, such a copyright would also prevent the exploitation of traditional or indigenous knowledge by corporate organizations who wish to make money out of it.

This is the understanding used by the West African country Ghana, when it  announced plans  to begin implementing provisions of its 2005 copyright law that creates strict protections for its original “folklore.” Simultaneously, South Africa is examining the possibility of creating for traditional knowledge or “Indigenous Knowledge Systems.” All of these are efforts to conserve and preserve the cultural heritage of knowledge, rather than with immediate aim of using it to earn a profit.
Is copyrighting common knowledge good or bad?

The answer to this does not exist in the copyright itself, but the implementation and availability of the knowledge after being copyrighted. If, for example, one would have to request permission and pay a hefty license fee to sing the commonly known ‘Happy Birthday Song’ in public, there is definitely a problem to consider.

However, if certain protections exist for indigenous culture with the aim to give due credit to the original population that created it and not with the aim of charging an undue fee for the use of the traditional knowledge, then it would definitely benefit to have protections for such knowledge.

As for now, we have our fingers crossed for the popular song “We Shall Overcome.” Hopefully, the copyright to this age-old song is overcome – or else we would be liable to pay a great deal of money to sing it in public!




Image: Flickr Ron Cogswell