By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge handed challengers to copyrights for the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" a victory on Friday, ruling that the lyrics and melody of the song's first verse do not qualify for copyright protection.
U.S. District Judge Denise Cote agreed with the nonprofit We Shall Overcome Foundation and producers of "Lee Daniels' 'The Butler,'" who paid to use the song in the 2013 movie, that a version whose copyrights were held by the Richmond Organization, a publisher, "lacks originality."
Cote said the origins of the song, which was long associated with the late folk singer Pete Seeger, remain unknown, perhaps dating to an 18th-century hymn or a later black spiritual.
She also noted it had been altered slightly for the version at issue, including by changing the line "we will overcome" to "we shall overcome." Seeger himself did not know for sure how that change came to be made, the Manhattan judge wrote.
"The fact that a trivial change to the lyrics became a part of a popular version of a song does not render that change nontrivial and automatically qualify the popular version for copyright protection," Cote said in a 66-page decision.
"The listed authors of the copyrighted song were well aware of the historic and to them venerable roots of the song," she added. "The gap in the proof of originality cannot be filled by good intentions."
Lawyers for Richmond and its Ludlow Music label, which possessed the copyrights registered in 1960 and 1963, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mark Rifkin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an email: "We are extremely pleased with the court's ruling today giving this iconic Civil Rights song back to the public."
Before taking on the "We Shall Overcome" copyrights, Rifkin's law firm, Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, had won a court ruling declaring a copyright to "Happy Birthday," the world's most popular tune, invalid.
The case is We Shall Overcome Foundation et al v. The Richmond Organization Inc et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-02725.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)