“I Have a Dream ©”

obama-and-kingThe online Globe and Mail has an important item on how documentary filmmakers and others are being slammed by the IP equity grab, called “How Copyright Could be Killing Culture”. Okay, maybe “killing culture” is a little over the top. I suppose if more rigorous enforcement of copyright would throw a speed bump in front of the likes of Michael Moore, our modern Leni Reifenstahl, that would put a little chill in the air — but is that killing “culture”?

The point of the article, flagged by Tech Law Advisor, is nonetheless well taken. On the road yesterday morning, I listened to the entirety of the “I Have a Dream” speech on the Imus show (and, indeed, wondered about permissions — or does Imus need them?). The speech is breathtakingly beautiful, compassionate, stirring, patriotic; it is a truly appeal to America’s better self. (What a contrast to the self-parodic tropes of King’s imitators.)

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1999 that the speech was not “generally published” for purposes of waiver of copyright, and that the King estate had the right to enforce its copyright in the speech. It is interesting to learn that King himself filed the copyright for the speech (albeit a month after he gave it — one of the issues in play in the case). According to the Globe and Mail article, however, for the makers of the King documentary Eyes on the Prize to renew their copyright clearances, they would need between a quarter and a half a million dollars. Evidently they won’t or can’t do it, so untold numbers of schoolchildren (who, please God, are prevented from listening to Imus’s show) won’t be exposed to the documentary, the speech, or this compelling version of the MLK story.

John Fund of the Wall Street Journal wrote a powerful opinion column on this topic two years ago. Here’s a fairly disturbing excerpt:

Many civil-rights leaders believe the King family has stepped out of bounds in merchandising Dr. King’s memory. In 1997, Dexter King negotiated a multimedia deal with Time Warner that the company said could mean as much as $10 million in royalties on books, Web sites and CD-ROMs. While schools may use Dr. King’s speeches free, family lawyers hunt down scholars who would use his words. “Eyes on the Prize,” the PBS documentary on the civil-rights movement, was delayed until the producers made a $100,000 payment to the King family. Julian Bond, head of the NAACP, says the price of his civil-rights textbook went up by at least $10 a copy because he had to pay to include four King documents in it.
“The family hasn’t done itself a lot of favors with its insistence that somehow they have to profit,” says Mr. Bond.

No, copyright won’t “kill culture,” but is it all worth it to ensure the Mickey Mouse franchise for perpetuity?


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Author:Ron Coleman

I write this blog.

4 Responses to ““I Have a Dream ©””

  1. Alyssa
    January 26, 2005 at 7:50 pm #

    MLK’s estate is hardly alone – as I’m sure you know – for example Ray Bradbury never allows excerpts of his work to appear online. And you aren’t even legally allowed to excerpt T.S. Eliot based on the guidelines of his estate. You have to run full works or nothing at all – whether in print or, I believe, online.

  2. Ronald Coleman
    January 26, 2005 at 8:56 pm #

    Good points, Alyssa. I would say, though, that while literary estates are one (frequently annoying) thing, the “I Have a Dream” speech was of across-the-board historic significance. Imagine the Gettysburg Address being controlled by the Lincoln estate for three generations!

    Of course, to your point, it’s really a two-way street of shame. Dr. Seuss was hardly cold in the grave before his widow started diluting and selling off that literary heritage, such as it is, as fast and hard as Thing One and Thing Two.

  3. Bruce Hayden
    February 16, 2005 at 3:01 am #

    One problem that the King estate is going to have if it ever were to actively litigate the copyright to the speech is that of Fair Use.

    Obviously, I think, just excerpting the most notable section that says: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. would be Fair Use based on the historicality of the segment.

    But the speech has to be read in its entirety to really appreciate what Dr. King was saying. It is truly one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century, from its elequence, for what it says, and for its effect.

    Finally, let me note that I have a (presumably infringing, acording to Dr. King’s heirs) copy of the speech on my desktop on my computer. I excerted from it repeatedly during the last election cycle, in particular, to make the point that Dr. King’s dream was a color-blind society, and that many actions of the left, such as Affirmative Action, are in opposition to this Dream.

    Getting back to my original point, if usage of this speech is not protected by Fair Use, then I don’t see where anything would be. It has a historicality and newsworthyness far in excess of almost anything else in our culture.

    (Obviously, it is possible to come up with situations where enough of the four Fair Use factors would cut against such to weigh against it).

  4. Bruce Hayden
    February 16, 2005 at 3:04 am #

    p.s. If my previous comment should be litigated as being infringing, no doubt you can raise the defense that your blog was a passive distributor of my comments, and thus, that I, and not you, would be the infringer.

    Working in this area, I am sure that you know the caselaw that I am talking about – I just don’t have it on the tip of my tongue.