Does copyright still help hold back Martin Luther King’s dream?
August 29, 2013 | 10:08 am
The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march on Washington seems a good time to resurrect, as many columnists have, the controversy over the copyright status of his “I have a dream” speech, delivered 50 years ago yesterday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The conundrum was typified by the 1999 court case Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc., which hinged on whether the speech had gone into the public domain by being broadcast. King’s estate held that it hadn’t. The parties settled out of court, so a final judicial ruling was never made, but the speech is assumed to be in copyright, and hence withheld from the public domain under the U.S. 70-year rule until 2038.
From some points of view, this copyright dispute exemplifies everything that is wrong with modern American media copyright law, and with many American institutions outside that narrow compass. The single most important speech on any issue of rights and freedom in the Land of the Free in the 20th century has been sequestered by commercial interests, goes this line of argument, and withheld from the people it was intended for. What clearer case for copyright reform could there be?
But is it really that simple? For one thing, that argument stands up better if there is evidence that King did not intend the speech to be copyrighted. However, he apparently registered it as an unpublished work just after its delivery. And while the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit did rule that the work was in copyright, fair use rights do give the public the right to quote and use portions of it in certain circumstances, without paying King’s estate.
Also, the speech’s copyright status would be more of an issue if the copyright-holders were keeping it out of general circulation. But the website of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change has not only put up a huge online flyer and resource bank for the 50th anniversary of the speech, but also keeps ” nearly a million documents associated with the life of Martin Luther King Jr.” for browsing via the site, including King’s original draft for the speech, plus complete texts and transcripts of it (including those held by other copyright-holders, incidentally). So it’s hardly as though the King estate is keeping the speech itself out of circulation or away from public access.
That touches on what, for me at least, is the key point of the copyright status of the speech. If the King estate was keeping the speech locked away from the world, and was diverting copyright payments due to it for private purposes, then I might have an issue with its current copyright status. But if rights payments are going to the King Center, then they are being used precisely for the purposes that the speech itself was intended to accomplish. That’s as good a case for copyright, even for such an iconic document, as any I can think of. And even the best-intentioned critics of copyright extension—who I happen to agree with, besides—need to find a better test case.