A Copyrighted Dream: Estate Maintains Strict Control of Dr. King Speeches, Images

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. | (Photo: Public Domain)

As the nation remembers famed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many seeking to broadcast his words and statements must pay the price.

King's estate keeps a strict copyright control over his works, with networks and others having to pay money in order to be permitted to broadcast the famous 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, or King Center for short, explains on their website that King's speeches and other works are not free.

"To obtain proper authorization for use of Dr. King's works and intellectual property, please contact Intellectual Properties Management, the exclusive licensor of the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., Inc.," noted the King Center.

This tight control has led to legal action, according to a 2015 Politico piece by Jonathan Band, a copyright lawyer and Georgetown University Law Center adjunct professor.

"In the 1990s, the estate sued USA Today for publishing the full text of the 'I Have a Dream' speech King delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, and the newspaper quickly settled by paying for a license and attorneys' fees," wrote Band.

"The estate then sued CBS for including footage of the speech in a segment of its documentary series 'The 20th Century with Mike Wallace' ... The trial court agreed with CBS, but an appellate court reversed and ruled in favor of the MLK estate on narrow technical grounds."

The film "Selma" hits theaters across the U.S. on Christmas Day, Thursday, December 25, 2014. | (Photo: Facebook/SelmaMovie)

Issues surrounding the usage of King's words did not end in the 1990s. For the 2014 movie "Selma," filmmakers were forced to paraphrase the civil rights leader's words since they were licensed out to another company.

"Because King's speeches were licensed to another project, 'Selma's filmmakers had to find a way to re-create the meaning of MLK's words without tres­passing on his actual, historic language. That means they had to rewrite MLK, though sometimes this meant just altering a verb or two," noted the Hollywood Reporter.

"During the scene at the funeral of civil rights demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson, for instance, the MLK in the film gives a rousing oratory, asking the crowd, 'Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson?' In real life, King asked, 'Who killed him?' In another scene, King rallies protestors with the words, 'Give us the vote,' while in reality King said, 'Give us the ballot.' The film skirts close to the words without using them."

Voices from both the left and the right have lamented the control over the historic words, with critical views appearing in both the National Review and Mother Jones.

"King's children have a reputation for maintaining a level of control over their father's legacy that is rigorous at best and avaricious at worst," noted one Mother Jones piece.

"King's son, Martin Luther King III, denied that he and his siblings are trying to profit from their father's image and said that there are numerous licensing requests that they reject. But they are forever haunted by comparisons to their dad, who eschewed personal wealth."

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