Did You Know MLK's "I Have a Dream" Speech is Copyrighted?


Via Brit Kenan Malik's great Twitter feed, I came across this story about copyright issues surrounding Martin Luther King's most-famous speech, the one delivered 50 years ago today in Washington, D.C. From The Drum:

This week's 'tales from the excesses of copyright' comes from the estate of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King who continue toput restrictions on the use of the civil rights' leader words, images and sounds. The speech, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, cannot be found legally in the public domain, unless express permission has been granted by King's estate. The only licensed version of the famous civil rights speech is found in its entirety on the Martin Luther King historical site which hosts almost all of his archives.

His speech "I have a Dream" is considered one of the most important cultural and historical moments of the 20th Century, yet is in incredibly difficult to find, listen to, or watch in its entirety when King addressed several hundred thousand people before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The speech, which won't be in the public domain until 2038, can only be used if a commercial entity pays the King estate a hefty fee….

King had not copyrighted the text before delivering several versions of it or before his assassination; his family secured the copyright after his death.

Read the whole article for more information about the court case between CBS and the King estate over whether a performance of the speech counted as publishing it. 

And here's a Wash Post article on the same topic.

The MLK Foundation site includes an amazing array of artifacts, including a draft of the Dream speech.

Reason on civil rights.

Reason on copyright.

Here's a version of the speech that is up on YouTube. Fifty years on, it remains nothing less than stunning.

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  1. His family sure has figured out how to capitalize on his legacy. They’re financially set for generations.

    1. Yeah, but it’s a real shame that his son inherited absolutely none of his old man’s wisdom or intelligence.

      1. But rest easy knowing that he probably beats his wife just like his old man.

      2. His niece inherited both:


  2. King had not copyrighted the text before delivering several versions of it or before his assassination; his family secured the copyright after his death.

    Yeah, this totally makes sense.

    1. I really is ridiculous that the family of a person who declined to copyright their work while alive can decide to do so after he dies. It seems somewhat likely that he specifically did not want his speeches to be copyrighted.

  3. If people don’t want other people making money off their words they shouldn’t try to persuasively change the world.

  4. To be sure, just writing down the speech (or recording it) is all it takes now. Registration just gets you stuff like statutory damages and some other legal advantages, but you still have a copyright.

    1. This is a huge problem in the copyright laws. It makes absolutely no sense to me. If you want a government-granted monopoly, you should be able to take the small step to register your protected work. Within a set time limit. Hell, people do patents, which are far more complicated, within a year of any publication. How hard would it be to register for a copyright within a year of six months? You can still have the mechanisms in place for allowing large publishers to batch register.

      This, combined with requiring period maintenance fees for copyright protect (again, similar to patents) would go a long way toward addressing the issues with the copyright system.

      1. Meh, we’d just end up with an even more bloated system than currently exists. Patent reform is far more urgent.

        1. What reform do you urge for patents? Outside of a few absolutely retarded precedents (e.g. Bilski v. Kappos), I don’t see all that many problems. When people talk of patent reform, they generally mean things that are weird and make the system bloated, but under a reasonable interpretation of the patent laws. Namely, business method patents. They don’t talk about the fundamental structure of the patents themselves.

      2. How do you reconcile copyright with the First Amendment?

        1. Well, if there’s a direct conflict, then the First Amendment should prevail, since the Copyright Clause is written in permissive terms, and the First Amendment in restrictive terms.

          That said, it’s really hard to argue that they intended the First Amendment to totally trump copyrights, since the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were drafted close in time. Free speech has never been viewed as absolute in the U.S., with laws restricting defamation, perjury, etc. being on the books all along.

          Despite all that, the “safety valve” between copyright and free speech has always supposed to have been fair use. But because fair use is practically metaphysical and arbitrarily determined by judges and because copyright holders can, without penalty, sue the crap out of people who are, in fact, exercising fair use rights, that safety valve isn’t working very well.

          1. I don’t know why the First Amendment should prevail at all. The First Amendment is generally recognized as controlling speech which is political in nature. It’s a check against government’s ability to control the political narrative. And copyrights/patent power is explicitly given to Congress in Article I, Section 8.

        2. There is more to the Constitution than the First. Article 1, Section 8 gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;”

          That being said, yeah copyright laws at the moment are screwy. One prof of mine once said it was in large part due to influence by Disney, lest Mickey Mouse become public domain.

          1. Although the copyright clause and the FA were adopted close in time, the FA came later, and arguably, supersedes the copyright clause.

            Given that the constitution would not have been adopted without the BOR, one can logically contend that any power given to Congress must be subordinate to the exercise of the liberties protected by the BOR.

            If the design was the establishment of a government with limited, defined powers, one would appear to be on solid ground arguing that any conflict between a delegated power and the exercise of a liberty protected by the BOR, the former would have to give way.

            1. But the constitution WAS adopted without the BOR….

            2. No one cares about the exact wording of the First Amendment. We have all kinds of exceptions to it – no yelling “fire” in a crowded building and so on. It most certainly is not an absolute right and it’s never been interpreted in such a manner. I can’t claim to know much about the history of the Amendment, but it’s traditionally been treated as applying to speech was is political in nature. It’s a check against the federal government’s (and state governments’ through the 14th Amendment) ability to control the political narrative. Note that copyright and patents are not political in nature.

              1. There is a pretty decent libertarian argument to be made that patents and copyrights cannot be reconciled with individual rights. But don’t make the mistake of believing that that means that a Constitutional case exists.

                1. There have been others in the liberty / libertarian camp who have made the constitutional argument that the FA trumps the copyright clause.

                  I would not contend that “no one cares about the exact wording of the First Amendment” as there some who do. That others have engaged in all sorts of intellectual sophistry to vitiate its meaning, does not thereby mean that the amendment should not be construed as written. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre is not universally accepted as some kind of exception to the FA. Keep in mind that the author of the statement was the same guy who claimed that a constitution does not endorse or embrace any particular economic theory.

                  I would not put too much stock in the Borkean notion regarding the protections of the FA being limited to political speech. If the framers had intended to limit the sweep of the FA’s protection to just political speech, why did they choose such absolutist language.

                  As a matter of logic, the absolute language of the FA just beats the shit out of the proposition that it was intended to just protect political speech.

                  We are not cabined by dopey progressive / statist conceptions of the what the constitution means.

                  1. To believe that the Constitution is a presentation of libertarian principles is absolutely absurd. Is the 3/5 notion a libertarian ideal? How about the basic federalist notion, implied by the Constitution and Bill or Rights as originally written, that it’s only a problem if the federal government violates rights, but not if the states do? The underlying notion of state sovereignty?

                    Dopey statist conceptions of what the Constitution means? The Constitution was a statist conception. It was a work designed entirely to justify the existence of a state and give power to that state. It was written by statists. It delegated power from states run by statists. To believe that the Constitution is consistent with libertarian principles is the absurd view to take.

                    The only proper take on the Constitution for a libertarian is that the legal positivists were right. The law doesn’t have a basis in morality.

                    1. I also don’t agree that the plain text of the First Amendment logically trumps anything. In context, it guarantees no intervention in religion, speech, press, assembly, or petition. For the Founders, religion was essentially political (many were religious outcasts who derided state sponsorship of religion). Ignoring speech, all of the other protections are political in nature. It’s not hard to see how, categorically, the First Amendment can be logically taken to cover that which is political in nature.

                      This is probably far more consistent with the language of the rest of the First Amendment and the basic principles upon which the Constitution was founded. And those principles are: a strong central state, protection for favored classes, and a need to compromise to get all of the states, with their very disparate views, to sign off on the document. There is nothing consistently libertarian or logical about it. Had the Founders intended the reading you suggest, they could have written a long, logically consistent document outlining all of their ideas. Contra Marbury v. Madison, Constitutions don’t have to be short and they don’t have to be ambiguous. Of course, none of the states would have signed on, which would have negated the primary purpose – getting the states to agree to give up some of their power as states to form another state.

                    2. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with general libertarian conceptions. I may even agree with your thoughts about speech and patents/copyrights. But I don’t pretend that the Constitution is some libertarian masterwork and try to read my policy preferences into it. Because they simply don’t hold water. Fuck the Constitution. Where it’s inconsistent with liberty, there’s a problem. Every libertarian should recognize this.

                    3. Finally, you could argue that the Constitution ought to find its basis in valid (presumably libertarian) ethical principles. I agree with your philosophy of law. But that is not the philosophy enshrined by the Constitution.

      3. It’s all because of our desire to conform to the Berne Convention. Same reason we extended the duration to Life + Eleventy Billion.

        1. Are you sure that’s not the Bernie Convention, under which an actor can be made to look and act alive after death for the purpose of partying and other assorted good times?

          1. That’s the right of pubicity, which gives actors perpetual rights over any full-frontal nude scenes they’re in. Only recognized in California at the moment, however.

          2. Weekend at Marty’s!

            He only looks asleep because he has a dream…

  5. seems that if you give a public speech in a public place, much like submitting an op-ed to any paper, it goes into the public domain and is eligible for rebroadcast immediately. But I’m not a lawyer.

    1. Don’t papers make that a condition of publication?

      1. No paper in which I’ve been published has ever required more than a nonexclusive license.

    2. Things were different back then, when registration was necessary, but all it takes now is some fixation in tangible form. So a speaker today would have a copyright in his written speech and in any recordings he’s made.

      1. So I can sue the newspaper that posted my high school valedictorian speech?

        1. Not likely–that’s probably fair use. News, you know.

          1. Those bastards. It’s just because I’m white, isn’t it?

            1. Yes. Check your privilege at the door, please.

              1. Too many white valedictorians!

    3. Would that apply to any public musical performance? Yeah, sure, why not.

        1. This is an interesting point. I’m not convinced that copyrights/patents are bad policy per se. I do think that they’re on their way out due to exponentially increasing data complexity. Copyrights/patents are only valuable insofar as they can be enforced. With massively complex data networks now allowing anyone to access any work at any time (and 3D printers soon to do the same with any object), there’s no way for the court system to keep up with enforcement. That essentially neuters the copyright/patent laws. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them soon become worthless and die due to this trend.

  6. I have a dream…

    …Endless residual checks.

  7. Why doesn’t laches apply here?

  8. Did Obama say that he could have been MLK 50 years ago?

    1. No, he’d never do that. He said that King could’ve been his father.

      1. King was a serial cheater.

        1. It’s good to be the King.

        2. His actual father was a bigamist, so, yes.

          1. He could have been Barack’s son.

        3. So he was Bill Clinton’s dad?

  9. OK, the Post article has details in it that change the story considerably. Read it first.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. It seems Nick was being a little loose with the facts to support his position.

  10. Intellectual property laws are what distinguish us from the lesser Great Apes.

    1. So that’s what the commies are teaching today?

  11. hmm… this made Drudge. I was expecting a deluge of crazies.

  12. Well, here we go again. This is what happens when people follow a man due to his race regardless of his past. Any of these king-worshipers bother to read any history other than what they found on BET or on the NAACP web site. How many of them know that his name was not Martin Luther (made up by his father “to sound important”), but was actually Michael. Do they ignore the documented fact that King plagiarized his doctoral dissertation at Boston University? Boston University officials have admitted, “There is no question but that Dr. King plagiarized in the dissertation.” Even so, they concluded that, “No thought should be given to the revocation of Dr. King’s doctoral degree, (because such action) would serve no purpose.” New York Times, October 11, 1991, page 15. ”

    The first book that King wrote, Stride Toward Freedom, was plagiarized from numerous sources, all unattributed, according to documentation recently assembled by sympathetic King scholars Keith D. Miller, Ira G. Zepp, Jr., and David J. Garrow.” Hoffman, ibid.

    According to Assistant (FBI) Director Sullivan, who had direct access to the surveillance files on King which are denied the American people, King had embezzled or misapplied substantial amounts of money contributed to the ‘civil rights’ movement.

    1. Fact: King used SCLC funds to pay for liquor and numerous prostitutes, both Black and White, who were brought to his hotel rooms, often two at a time, for drunken sex parties which sometimes lasted for several days.” The Beast As Saint, The Truth About Martin Luther King, by Kevin Alfred Strom.

      Are the King worshipers ignorant of the fact that King stole his “I Have A Dream” speech from black Pastor Archibald Carey’s speech given in 1952? That King’s “Let Freedom Ring’ line is from SF Smith’s patriotic hymn written in 1852?

      Does it not matter that King kept prostitutes for his sexual desires with him on his tours? FBI records clearly show that King was with a white and a black prostitute in his motel room the night before he was killed. Don’t like to hear such truth? Then you are living in denial and ignorance is your god.

      1. That King chose to socialize with both cracka and negro hoes only underscores his commitment to racial harmony and integration.

        Don’t you know that MLK’s united nations parade of prostitutes inspired Jesse Jackson to name his supporters the rainbow coalition?

      2. Is this ‘American’ with a new handle?

        1. Are you referring to Oracle?

          My handle is the same one I have always used; not just here, but everywhere.

          1. Yes, I was referring to ‘Oracle’.

      3. In my experience, this is not a receptive forum in which to criticize prostitution.

        1. Apparently he feels we would be even more shocked by the interracial prostitution angle.

          1. “We should keep our business strictly within the black community!”

            1. “Patronise black businesses only – don’t let outsiders drain resources from our community!”

      4. That King’s “Let Freedom Ring’ line is from SF Smith’s patriotic hymn written in 1852?

        Ha ha ha! OMG. Yeah, what a scandal.


      5. Kevin Alfred Strom – the self-described neo-nazi who was part of National Alliance who was convicted of being a pedo for attempting to rape a 10 year old girl? Yeah – a pedophile white-supremesist talking about sexual deviancy in a black man. Top notch source you got there.

        Yeah – King wasn’t an angel and everyone tries to downplay that fact. But sorry – I am not going to take Strom’s bullshit as “Fact”

    2. Well, you’ve convinced me, Oracle. MLK may have done some less than virtuous things in his life, therefore racial equality is bullshit.

      1. Is Oracle asserting that or are you inferring that?

        1. Seems like a pretty good inference. Why else mention the race of the prostitutes he was partying with? I’d bet that this is the latest incarnation of our resident racist asshole troll.

          1. You don’t think he mentioned the races of the prostitutes to showcase MLK’s commitment to diversity?

  13. I think this would be a wonderful opportunity to pause for a moment and give thanks for the many great contributions of the Black community and their culture to our society. Their peaceful and generous nature make them ideal neighbors, lending testimony to their exceptional family values and parenting skills unrivaled by any other culture.
    Their commitment to academic excellence enriches our schools and serves as an example to all who hope to achieve prominence as a people. Real Estate values are fueled by the influx of African Americans into an area due to their caring and respectful nurturing of these communities, an example of all they have achieved by their enthusiasm for self improvement through hard work and a self-reliant can-do nature. Without their industrious and creative drive, we would be poorer, as a nation.
    Presently enriching the cities of Spokane WA, Chicago IL, Philadelphia PA, Washington D.C., St. Louis MO, New Orleans LA, Los Angeles CA, Flint MI, Baltimore MD, Pontiac MI, Gary Ind., Newark NJ, Cleveland OH, Atlanta GA, Richmond VA, Memphis Tn, Birmingham AL, Camden NJ; and let’s not forget Detroit, the tourism capital of the world!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. To be fair, there are few groups which have been as historically repressed as African-Americans. Slavery, Jim Crow, drug laws, inequitable utilization of those drug laws, and so on.

  14. MLK gave us wisdom. His family greedily stole it from all of us after he was taken from us. And we are all poorer for both losses.

  15. I have a bloody dream as well….. Why don’t all you ignorant racist negro’s go back to your “Homeland”… The African continent!!!

    Our forefathers made one of the biggest mistakes of ALL time when they brought you people from your African masters – over into OUR part of the world!!!

    Just L@@k at the African continent TODAY – nothing has changed much in 400 yrs!!!

  16. Here is Archibald Carey’s speech from which many think MLK derived “his” speech:…..c=postname

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