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Summary:

Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to keep control over his famous speech through copyright. Should his wishes be respected no matter what his family does?

Martin Luther King

It’s fifty years to the day after Rev. Martin Luther King delivered one of the most celebrated speeches in U.S. history, and people are turning to YouTube to hear King’s message of freedom and brotherhood once more. It’s uplifting to realize the enduring power of the speech — which is why the sordid state of King’s intellectual property is so depressing.

As the media and legal scholars have reported, the speech is not in the public domain but is controlled at the whim of the Martin Luther King Estate, a grasping group of family members and lawyers who are quick to threaten legal action against anyone who wants to use the speech or King’s name and image.

Under the guise of protecting King’s legacy, the estate has entered licensing deals with all comers, including Apple, Chevrolet andScreenshot of King clothing Mercedes. Recently, they extended rights to “Zion Rootswear,” which touts v-necks, crew necks and screen prints like the ones on the right to “celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy through artistic, fashion-forward designs.”

The King estate’s good deeds also include suing over merchandise celebrating President Obama’s victory, and yanking the licensing rights to “Martin Luther King” from the foundation that led the effort to put a giant edifice of the civil rights leader on the Washington Mall.

“As we’ve seen for over 15 years now, the behavior of the family’s financial representatives continue to do active harm to Dr. King’s legacy … King’s legacy has a reduced visibility and less substantive visibility because of the family’s demands,” civil rights historian, David Garrow, told journalists Roland Martin and Joseph Martin, who wrote an exhaustive account of the situation in March.

While it’s easy to be disgusted at the behavior of King’s family, the situation is not so simple at a law and policy level. Recall that King deliberately set out to copyright his speech, much as American authors and artists have done for centuries. It was King’s wish that his family control the speech after his death — so who are we to complain about how they have done so?

The problem here, of course, is to decide how far and how long copyright should extend. If we believe copyright is permanent and absolute, people should be able to claim rights in the works of Frederick Douglas or even Shakespeare if they can show they’re a legal heir.

In the case of King’s brood, they can control the speech until the year 2038. It may be on YouTube for now but they can yank it down again, or choose to sue anyone who reproduces it on their own website without permission. And while the safety valve of copyright’s fair use principles may mitigate the situation, the underlying problem is that copyright has become absurdly long — and, unfortunately, King’s kin and others could see their control extended another 20 years.

For now, the speech remains up on YouTube. Learn and be inspired while you still can:

  1. “I have a dream that one day this nation will license this speech from my estate”

    There, fixed it for ya.

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  2. The US government should have just bought the copyright and put it into the public domain. Alternatively the Congress who has been cravenly extending copyright for the past half century to protect Micky Mouse should return it to its original meaning

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  3. I’d love to hear Dr. King’s reaction to you teeing off on his family because you think the copyright laws in the US are too protective of creators. You choose to criticize an African American family rather than Disney or Rupert Murdoch. Clearly his dream is not yet realized.

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    1. The best you could do is making an ad hom argument about racism? Pathetic.

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    2. Paul Blumenthal Friday, August 30, 2013

      I think it’s anti-racists. It shows human nature whether white or black. Which is: money, money, money, give me, give me, give me. Black or white want to enrich themselves. What would worry me if the King’s family would give it out for free to everyone instead of making a profit on it. That would be unamerican almost. If you know what I mean.

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    3. That doesn’t even make sense.

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  4. What next? Will they be selling tickets to celebrate Martin Luther King Day?

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  5. This is a family enterprise. I know it ‘hurts’ some people because Dr. King is a potent symbol in our history. Yet, the family’s business is their business they just need to show a bit more empathy for those of us who followed and continue to follow Dr. King.

    He lives in my heart not within the confines of legal actions, licensing and t-shirts. I keep the dream alive there.

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  6. To coincide with the anniversary events in Washington D.C., the King Center has authorized production of the official 50th anniversary “I Have a Dream!” commemorative program.

    Here’s the link to the digital edition of the magazine.

    http://issuu.com/faircountmedia/docs/mlk50

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    1. By the way, access to this desktop edition is free.

      http://issuu.com/faircountmedia/docs/mlk50

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    2. By the way, access to the digital edition is free.

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  7. I feel that there should be nothing done about what they do about his families control over the copy rights! Dr King was a very smart man to do that much so therefore the actions taken are within his wishes. He has been able to protect his family and provide them financial security and for as much encouragement and as popular as he is why should he not gain profit from it. I do feel they should be a bit more lenient in allowing individuals to see and be apart of what was so great . However do we not as Americans pay for those things that we feel are valuable? So seeing that this is a piece of history that is very valuable then I close my case that you should pay for it! Why should the Walt- Disney have any more Value over a part of history that has brought us much closer than Mickey mouse?

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    1. Why should he not gain a profit from it? He’s no longer living. The question isn’t ‘does this have value’ the question is ‘why should this thing of value be solely controlled by an estate that sees fit to threaten obvious fair uses like a biopic or posting a video of the speech online.’ Just because it has value doesn’t mean the right to exploit that value is in the right hands or that those hands haven’t relentlessly abused the system to take value they are not even due.

      Walt-Disney disgusts me too, taking public domain fairy tales and locking them behind copyright and then relentlessly lobbying for retroactive extensions of said copyright, but that’s no excuse for giving the King estate a pass on their own abuses.

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  8. Hmmm Just another thought . Since when was it Okay that we take things from people who rightfully own them , just because we ourselves feel we can bank on it or profit from it at higher levels ourselves. This to me shows the contradicting injustice of which he was speaking of in the first place. I know for sure copyrighted or not I would not want someone going around saying they own a piece of work that was rightfully my own. When will be stop stealing or come out of that mind set of individual gains for self only? I dont feel their ability to control the work will ever erase him out of history. That would just be a lame excuse to fight the fact that you want to use his speech to profit on larger scales again only for self gain or gain of the mass yet excluding his family . Thats no good.

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    1. Material covered by copyright is not a ‘thing’ that is ‘owned.’ Copyrights are actually a government exclusion placed on everyone but the holder from exercising their own property rights. To try to dress them up as ‘ownership’ here is absurd.

      The contradicting injustice here is that was also about economic inequality and how the socially powerful had things rigged to keep others down. Now his heirs are using the speech to get rich and relying on their on social power, copyright, to ‘take down’ ‘unauthorized’ uses of the speech.

      Attribution and copyright are not the same issue.

      Stop stealing? That is rich given that you’re defending a group of third parties that had absolutely nothing to do with the work in question exploiting it for profit. Individual gains for self only indeed.

      Gain of the mass IS good. In fact it’s the actual good that copyright is intended to serve. It was certainly not intended to primarily enrich third parties like heirs or even Walt-Disney but that’s what lobbying has warped it into. Far from being fundamentally different estates like this one and Walt-Disney are of a kind, third parties who abuse copyright for their own selfish profit.

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  9. support_and_love_our_troops Friday, August 30, 2013

    Section 107 of fair use might apply? http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html

    There are 4 criteria…

    1. Purpose. No-one reprints the speech for profit.
    2. Nature of the work. The speech was delivered to millions of people, clearly intended to be for the benefit of mankind and not as a commercial activity.
    3. Amount. Although many people reproduce the speech entirely, most simply quote from it — classic fair use.
    4. Effect on market. Since virtually no-one has paid to hear the speech since it was given, there basically isn’t a commercial market for it. One more YouTube video has no effect.

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  10. Pay, until the last descendant of King Jr. Passes on. If someone wishes to sell and reassign those rights, then fine. That is the only way people will remember, and it will also be treated respectfully.

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