POLITICS
08/28/2013 12:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 28, 2013

Here's Why You Don't See MLK's 'I Have A Dream' Speech All The Time

As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the historic March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom, and the epoch-altering oration by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, you might be asking yourself, "why is it that I don't see this speech all the time on the teeveee?" Or, "why is it that King's famous speech isn't easily and reliably discovered and shared on social media?"

Well, it's because the speech is copyrighted -- one that King's estate has zealously guarded and enforced for many years.

Here's a good primer on how it came to be a copyrighted work, and not a piece of history in the public domain, presented by the folks at NowThisNews.

It feels a little wrong. King's speech is, after all, a cornerstone of the modern American experience. It feels like it is part of our birthright -- part of the stew of history that's made the world we live in what it is today, something upon which we should frequently reflect, something in which we should find purpose and renewal.

But it's sort of understandable -- King's estate doesn't want King's words co-opted or reconstructed in a new context. No one really wants to see the speech in someone's mean-minded political attack ad, and one's gorge understandably rises at the thought of King's soaring rhetoric used in a vacuum cleaner or pick-up truck ad. Now, I say "sort of" understandable because King's estate has allowed the speech to be used in advertisements. In one famous example, the mobile communications company Alcatel paid King's estate for the permission to excerpt the speech in a 2001 advertisement:

Alcatel I Have a Dream commercial by MyAds

James Boyle, Duke University law professor and founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, waxes humorously and cynically about the Alcatel debacle here.

CNN and MSNBC plan to rebroadcast the speech Wednesday, and presumably they've paid handsomely for the privilege. At least I hope so, for their sakes. As Alex Pasternack reported a year ago for Vice, the speech can be broadcast if you make the proper payment and secure the proper licensing. If you don't, however, trouble will find you:

Typically, a speech broadcast to a large audience on radio and television (and considered instrumental in historic political changes and ranked as the most important speech in 20th century American history) would seem to be a prime candidate for the public domain. But the copyright dilemma began in December 1963, when King sued Mister Maestro, Inc., and Twentieth Century Fox Records Company to stop the unauthorized sale of records of the 17-minute oration.

Then, in 1999, a judge in Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc. determined that the speech was a performance distributed first to the news media and not to the public, making it a “limited” rather than a “general” publication. Thus, the speech, like other “performances” on CBS, was not in the public domain. That meant the King estate had the right to claim copyright and had standing to sue CBS, which had used a portion of the speech in a 1994 documentary, “The 20th Century with Mike Wallace.”

The claim had been made before. In 1994, USA Today had paid the King estate $10,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs plus a $1,700 licensing fee after publishing the full speech without permission; the estate also sued the documentary producer Henry Hampton, alleging the unauthorized use of Dr. King’s image and words in the landmark 1987 public television series Eyes on the Prize.

The King estate's copyright is enforced by the British music publishing company EMI. Here is a song some nice British kids wrote about them.

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