The two sides in a legal dispute over whether the song “We Shall Overcome” was subject to copyright protection reached a settlement on Friday that put the civil rights anthem in the public domain, lawyers involved in the case said.
Two plaintiffs, the makers of a documentary on the song’s history and producers of the 2013 film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” who wanted to use part of the song in the movie, challenged its copyright protection in federal court.
The documentarians had been denied permission and the moviemakers were asked to pay as much as $100,000 to use it in several critical scenes, according to the law firm representing the plaintiffs.
In September, a federal judge partly rejected the copyright claim, saying the song’s adaptation from an older work — including changing “will” to “shall” — was not original enough to qualify for protection.
That decision, by Judge Denise L. Cote of United States District Court in Manhattan, focused on the first verse, which has the lyrics “We shall overcome/We shall overcome some day” and “Oh deep in my heart I do believe/We shall overcome some day.”
Judge Cote granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs, saying that the song “lacks originality,” and focused in her ruling on the changing of “will” to “shall.”
The song’s origins have been traced to spirituals at the turn of the 20th century. In 1960 and 1963, the publisher Ludlow Music registered copyrights for it, saying that the song’s authors — including Pete Seeger — had made changes to earlier versions of it.
The plaintiffs sought to have the copyright for the entire song declared invalid, with the case set for trial next month.
The litigation, which began in 2016, had become expensive and Ludlow spent far more on the case than it had earned on the song in recent years, Paul V. LiCalsi, a lawyer for Ludlow and the other defendant, the Richmond Organization, said in a telephone interview on Friday night.
In a statement, Ludlow said royalties from the song since the early 1960s had been donated to the nonprofit Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, which created the We Shall Overcome Fund to distribute all of the royalties through grants and scholarships in black communities. It was not immediately clear how much money the fund had distributed.
“Without the same scope of copyright protection, Highlander’s grants and scholarships will be deeply affected in the future,” the statement said.
Ludlow also said uses of the song had in the past been “carefully vetted” but warned that its words and melody could now be used by advertising agencies and others “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.”
The settlement was “an enormously important achievement” because others can now use the song without paying for it or seeking permission, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Mark C. Rifkin, said in a telephone interview on Friday night. “We’re really thrilled to be part of an effort to give this song back to the public where it belongs,” he said.
The case is the latest one to cancel the copyright of a time-honored song that many people may well assume was available for anyone to sing: A judge invalidated the copyright on “Happy Birthday to You” in 2015.