Los Angeles – The late civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. made his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech on Washington Mall forty eight years ago this week. For those people too young to have been there, many would turn to YouTube with hopes to view the historical oration about Dr. King’s pursuit for racial equality. But you won’t find the recorded speech on YouTube or anywhere else. The speech is copyrighted content and rights to its usage remain with the King family.
Usually, a speech that is broadcast to a large audience on radio and television, especially one that is considered crucial to historic political change and one of the most memorable speeches of modern times, would be available to the public domain. Soon after Dr. King made the speech in 1963, he applied for and was granted federal copyright protection for the speech under the Copyright Law of 1909. He then successfully sued Mister Maestro Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Records to stop their unauthorized sale of recordings of the famous speech.
Fast-forward to 1995, twenty-seven years after Dr. King’s untimely death, to the “20th Century with Mike Wallace,” an hour-long series that takes a look back at some of the most historical events of that century. Dr. King’s estate sued CBS for copyright infringement, claiming that a portion of King’s speech used in the documentary was taken without permission or any royalties paid.
In 1999, a judge ruled against CBS’s defense that the speech was available in the public domain on the grounds that a public oration did not constitute general publication no matter how large the audience was. Apparently, CBS was not alone in the confusion over general vs. limited publication and fair use laws. In 1994, USA Today paid the King estate $10,000 in attorneys fees and court costs plus a $1,700 licensing fee after publishing the full speech without authorization. CBS reportedly settled with the family for an undisclosed sum.
One crucial fact supporting the King family’s copyright claims was that although Dr. King himself had obtained a copyright registration on the speech a month after delivering it, his original claim against Mister Maestro was deemed valid since no “tangible” copy of the speech had been distributed before he had made his claim (as based on the copyright law from 1909).
Various excerpts and remixes of “I Have a Dream” can still be used under fair use laws. However, any recorded versions are hard to come by. At thekingcenter.org, the family’s website, video and audio recordings of the speech are available for sale. The King family will retain copyright privileges of the speech until 2038, seventy years after King’s death.