On December 25, American moviegoers were offered a glimpse into history as the critically acclaimed film “Selma” hit theaters. The movie offers a portrayal of the leadership, obstacles and milestones faced by relentless peacemaker Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he and his supporters marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in the name of civil rights and equality.
However, anyone with even a novice knowledge of Dr. King’s famous speeches will immediately notice a glaring oddity in the movie: the words and content so famously attributed to this fearless leader are completely altered, paraphrased or rewritten altogether.
How can this be? The answer is simple: copyright. Much like a famous song, novel or even a catchphrase, Dr. King’s famous civil rights speeches have been legally protected such that no other entity can reproduce the words for commercial gain, or even for non-profit purposes, without the express written consent of his family. And, good luck with that.
Currently, the King family has issued a license solely to Steven Spielberg for the right to reproduce the content of Dr. King’s works for a film and commercial gain. The makers of “Selma” — from Paramount Pictures — were unsuccessful in negotiating a similar deal.
Historical copyrights of Dr. King’s speeches
Copyrighting a historical speech is often thought of as a safe way to secure the legacy of a prominent figure, eliminating the possibility that the entertainment industry will posthumously capitalize on the efforts of the famous figure.
There are limits — speeches written or rendered prior to 1923 are considered within the public domain and are not subject to U.S. copyright laws. Likewise, speeches made by any member of Congress or the U.S. President (while in office) cannot by copyrighted and shall remain forever in the public domain.
However, famous speeches and quotes made after 1923 are subject to the rigorous copyright laws currently in place – despite fervent efforts by moviemakers, documentarians and authors to urge Congress to rewrite these restrictive laws.
The estate of Dr. King, which is managed by the for-profit company King, Inc., has collected millions of dollars on his memory and works. Not only has the family sued and received payments from several authors and television channels, it even managed to siphon $2.7 million in licensing fees from a group that raised money to erect a statue of Dr. King in Washington, D.C. The group even had to change its name from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Foundation because King, Inc. wanted an additional $20,000 to use the name.
The actions of the King heirs via King, Inc. have lead many to ponder whether these copyright laws are actually doing more harm than good. “I think Martin Luther King must be spinning in his grave,” former King lieutenant Bill Rutherford told CBS in 2002. “He attempted his entire life to communicate ideas for free. To communicate, not to sell.”
Status of speech copyright laws
Congress has started to strongly consider amending its copyright laws, despite several retroactive applications of 95-, 76- and 56-year protection terms. In early 2014, Congress took testimony from several industry experts on the pros and cons of re-drafting current copyright laws to reflect the needs of Americans in the digital age.
In the words of intellectual property law professor Peter Jaszi, whose testimony was particularly relevant to the issues surrounding the legacy of Dr. King, “citizens’ ability to make socially and economically positive uses of copyrighted materials without permission is a positive right, connected to the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.”
For now, the civil rights legacy of Dr. King will live on in the snippets of content allowed by the family, until the entire library of his speeches and letters becomes part of the public domain — which is not likely to occur until at least 2039.
Photo via Flikr: “Alabama civil rights movement: Selma to Montgomery march.” Courtesy of the Jack Rabin collection on Alabama civil rights and southern activists, 1941-2004 (bulk 1956-1974), Historical Collections and Labor Archives, Eberly Family Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.