Few would dispute that, in his short life, Martin Luther King Jr. uttered some of the most famous and consequential words in this country’s history. The renown and resonance of his words and oratory have woven them into the fabric of American society, and many in this country justifiably view them as an integral part of our collective national narrative. However, as Politico Magazine reports, the reality is that King’s words, speeches, and writings are decidedly not part of the public domain. Instead, they are protected by copyright, and their use is tightly controlled by King’s estate, now owned by his famously litigious descendants. With exceptions for fair use, any use of King’s recorded words, speeches, and writings must be licensed by the King estate.
The recent film Selma illustrates some of the issues posed by the King estate’s strict copyright enforcement policy, and the extent to which the “estate’s tough stance on copyright affected the historical accuracy of the film.” As the article explains, “Selma director Ava DuVernay may well have taken more license than artistically necessary in the confrontational scenes between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson. But inaccuracies in other significant parts of the film were forced upon DuVernay by copyright law. The film’s numerous scenes of King delivering powerful speeches regarding civil rights all had to be paraphrased, because the MLK estate has already licensed the film rights in those speeches” to another studio for a different project. Thus, despite the cultural significance of his actual words, King’s “rhetorical brilliance” could not be presented in a historically accurate manner without infringing on the King estate’s copyrights. Read the full article here.
Reposted from Politico Magazine.