The copyright of this song was challenged in a 2016 lawsuit by the nonprofit We Shall Overcome Foundation, whose leader Isaias Gamboa wrote a book about the history of the song. Gamboa said that when he tried to get permission to use the song in a documentary, he was denied by Ludlow Music, the publisher that owns the rights on behalf of the four credited songwriters (including Pete Seeger). Questioning why the song isn't public domain, Gamboa hired the same law firm that had recently emancipated "Happy Birthday
," and brought the case against Ludlow.
When Seeger and his cohorts copyrighted the song, they did it with good intentions, channeling the profits to the Highlander School. Seeger believed that songs rooted in tradition should be free to the public, but he knew that if he didn't stake a claim to "We Shall Overcome," someone else would - likely with a profit motive. ("They're not my songs, they're old songs, I just happened to sing 'em," he said when Bruce Springsteen released his tribute album.) The copyright does restrict the song though, and preventing it from being used in a documentary was certainly not Seeger's intention.
In 2018, Ludlow settled the case and released "We Shall Overcome" into the public domain. This was welcome news for anyone looking to use the song in a book, movie or video, but bad news for Highlander. Ludlow issued a statement that read: "Now, given its more limited copyright protection, any individual, corporation, or advertising agency may use the song's words and melody in any manner they wish, including inaccurate historical uses, commercials, parodies, spoofs and jokes, and even for political purposes by those who oppose civil rights for all Americans. This is the saddest result of this case. In this era of hate and divisiveness, now more than ever, 'We Shall Overcome' should be a fully protected work and cherished as a national treasure."