Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Activist, Leader, Creator

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr statue

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was many things—a minister, a Doctor of Theology, an activist and leader within the civil rights movement, a husband and father. He was also a gifted writer and orator. On August 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington—a speech that, today, is one of the most recognizable and rhetorically acclaimed speeches in American history. Among many other important accomplishments, Dr. King was a creator.

In September 1963, just a month after delivering the speech in front of 200,000 people, with millions more watching and listening from home, Dr. King began the process of obtaining federal copyright protection in his “I have a Dream” speech, and soon after filed a lawsuit against a company selling copies of recordings of the speech without authorization. In the decades since, Dr. King’s estate has continued to be diligent in enforcing his copyrights.

In 1999, Dr. King’s estate filed suit against a television network for its role in producing a documentary which included “extensive footage” of the speech—airing about 60% of its content—without permission. The network refused to pay royalties to the King Estate, insisting instead that Dr. King failed to comply with the necessary copyright formalities that existed in the law at the time and that, as a result, the copyright in the speech was invalid.

Unlike the current law which makes federal copyright protection automatic, the 1909 Act—which governed copyright when the speech was written and registered—contained legal requirements referred to as “formalities” that a creator needed to satisfy in order to obtain copyright protection. There were some automatic protections available at the state-level, called “common law” protection, but that protection disappeared the moment the work was published. And if a creator hadn’t yet secured federal copyright protection in the work, losing that common law protection meant the work fell into the public domain.

In August 1963, when Dr. King gave his speech, it was covered by state common law copyright protection, but it was not yet protected federally since he hadn’t complied with the formalities. The TV network argued that the moment Dr. King gave his renowned speech, it was to be considered a “general publication,” meaning that the work instantly fell into the public domain. The court, however, ultimately sided with King’s estate, explaining that “a performance, no matter how broad the audience, is not a publication… this conclusion is not altered by the fact that the Speech was broadcast live to a broad radio and television audience and was the subject of extensive contemporaneous news coverage.”

Not unlike other creators and their families, Dr. King and his estate have come under harsh criticism for enforcing their rights against unauthorized uses of his work—though, for what it’s worth, rumor has it that the Estate “has not pursued legal action against educators” who have used the speech in the classroom, even in violation of the law. Nonetheless, critics argue that the social and historical value of the speech require that it be made available to the public. But the Estate continues to license use of the speech. So I think what the critics actually mean is that the work should be available to the public for free—an important, and oft-overlooked distinction.

What’s also overlooked is the fact that creators, even the ones who create for the common good of the people, have bills to pay and families to feed. Our copyright law is designed to reward creators during their lifetimes, and to help provide for their families thereafter.

When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 he had no will and no money to leave behind. “King died, for the most part, a pauper without a will. It’s not that he didn’t make money during his lifetime — he wrote five books, was a highly sought-after speaker and took home the $54,600 that went along with the Nobel Peace Prize. But rather than putting money away for his family, he donated everything he had to the movement.

On this day of remembrance and celebration of the life, achievements, and sacrifices of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us also celebrate the preservation of his legacy through his books, speeches, and other writings, and the ability of those works not only to enlighten generations to come, but to continue to provide for his family when he could not.

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