Should Dr. King’s family be able to control his “I have a dream” speech?

It’s fifty years to the day after Rev. Martin Luther King delivered one of the most celebrated speeches in U.S. history, and people are turning to YouTube(s goog) to hear King’s message of freedom and brotherhood once more. It’s uplifting to realize the enduring power of the speech — which is why the sordid state of King’s intellectual property is so depressing.
As the media and legal scholars have reported, the speech is not in the public domain but is controlled at the whim of the Martin Luther King Estate, a grasping group of family members and lawyers who are quick to threaten legal action against anyone who wants to use the speech or King’s name and image.
Under the guise of protecting King’s legacy, the estate has entered licensing deals with all comers, including Apple, Chevrolet andScreenshot of King clothing Mercedes. Recently, they extended rights to “Zion Rootswear,” which touts v-necks, crew necks and screen prints like the ones on the right to “celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy through artistic, fashion-forward designs.”
The King estate’s good deeds also include suing over merchandise celebrating President Obama’s victory, and yanking the licensing rights to “Martin Luther King” from the foundation that led the effort to put a giant edifice of the civil rights leader on the Washington Mall.
“As we’ve seen for over 15 years now, the behavior of the family’s financial representatives continue to do active harm to Dr. King’s legacy … King’s legacy has a reduced visibility and less substantive visibility because of the family’s demands,” civil rights historian, David Garrow, told journalists Roland Martin and Joseph Martin, who wrote an exhaustive account of the situation in March.
While it’s easy to be disgusted at the behavior of King’s family, the situation is not so simple at a law and policy level. Recall that King deliberately set out to copyright his speech, much as American authors and artists have done for centuries. It was King’s wish that his family control the speech after his death — so who are we to complain about how they have done so?
The problem here, of course, is to decide how far and how long copyright should extend. If we believe copyright is permanent and absolute, people should be able to claim rights in the works of Frederick Douglas or even Shakespeare if they can show they’re a legal heir.
In the case of King’s brood, they can control the speech until the year 2038. It may be on YouTube for now but they can yank it down again, or choose to sue anyone who reproduces it on their own website without permission. And while the safety valve of copyright’s fair use principles may mitigate the situation, the underlying problem is that copyright has become absurdly long — and, unfortunately, King’s kin and others could see their control extended another 20 years.
For now, the speech remains up on YouTube. Learn and be inspired while you still can: