This space has annually honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on his designated holiday and we honor his memory today, but in a slightly different way than planned. Our desire was to reprint King’s historic civil rights speech made at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. However, any outlet has to be cautious about taking that step because the King estate controls a copyright protection on the speech.
As a writer with works under copyright, I appreciate the importance of the copyright provision the Founders put in the United States Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 empowers Congress to promote the progress of science and the useful arts by securing for a time exclusive rights to writings and discoveries.
However, the public benefit of King’s historic speech has been limited by his estate’s dogged protection of the speech. King himself filed for the copyright shortly after the speech was delivered. His estate has assiduously protected the speech and his image in controlling material about the man. Using his most famous speech often requires hefty fees for its reproduction. Lawsuits against CBS and USA Today have enforced the copyright. Portions of the speech may be used in certain circumstances with no fee but reproducing the entire document without permission is protected until the copyright runs out in 2038.
Copyright attorney Josh Schiller wrote in the Washington Post last summer at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of King’s speech an analysis of the debate over the copyright and the need to allow the speech to reach the widest audience possible.
He concluded: “As an attorney, I believe in respect for the law and observing copyright restrictions. But when it comes to observing the anniversary of such a public moment, one hopes that fair use will allow current generations to appreciate what happened 50 years ago this week and why it was such a moment in American history.”
Over the years, the dispute over the speech’s copyright and King’s image has kept works about him out of wider public distribution. The highly praised civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize faced a lawsuit from the King estate over use of unlicensed film footage and the work was unavailable for more than ten years before the issue was settled and some of the footage was removed.
Just last Friday, filmmaker Oliver Stone announced he would drop a film biography on Martin Luther King that he had spent years pursuing because the estate that guards King’s reputation would not approve Stone’s script.
This is a tricky situation. While items related to core issues of our nation’s history should be made readily available, support of the copyright laws is also essential. It falls to the stewards of the copyright to carefully and justly oversee the material.
For today, let us remember the man who’s actions and words still stir the soul and hold us to the promise of America.