As you hopefully are aware, today is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s powerful, moving and memorable I have a dream… speech. In a just world, that speech would be in the public domain. And, legally, it might be. While King did apparently send a copy of the speech to the Copyright Office, he did so as an “unpublished work.” There has been a dispute, then, about the speech itself, since that would be a publication. His estate, however, has argued that the speech was not a “general publication,” but rather a “limited publication” and thus King retained a common law copyright — and an appeals court appeared to agree, but the lawsuit over this was settled without a final ruling, and no one has challenged it since. However, King’s estate has beenridiculously aggressive in trying to lock up his speeches and take down videos commemorating his talks, with a focus on this momentous speech.
Of course, they’re more than happy to license the speech to the highest bidder…
…which is why the speech has been used to sell cars and mobile phone service — but if you were to post it yourself to share it and honor his memory, expect a DMCA takedown. This should bother you. The speech and the legacy of Dr. King are not available for you and I to use, but giant telcos can pay thousands of dollars for the privilege. While there’s a strong fair use argument that the speech can be used as “a historical artifact” in such situations as today, very few people feel like testing that theory in court.
Law professor James Boyle finds the whole situation quite ridiculous, and has expressed his dismay with the fact that this speech is now tied to commercialism, rather than for the celebration of civil rights. In response, he’s penned a “revised” version of the speech, entitled, (EM)I Has A Dreamin honor of the fact that the King family has partnered with EMI to “administer” the copyright on the speech. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s a snippet:
Five tens of years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, wrote this speech. This momentous oratory came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of African-Americans. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. Fifty years later, that speech still is not free. Fifty years later, the life of the speech is still sadly crippled by the manacles of corporate ownership and the chains of take-down letters. Fifty years later, the speech lives on a lonely island of property rights in the midst of a vast ocean of the culture it influenced. And I say, let freedom ring. Not the chirpy ring of the Cingular wireless phone his words were actually used to advertise, but the idea of freedom for which he stood.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and actually use the words of this speech.
Then, and only then, we will be able to say, “We have a dream. And no one owns it. Free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Today should be a day on which we celebrate this speech. It’s a depressing statement of the state of copyright law that doing so in the most appropriate way may actually be against the law.
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