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MLK: Copyrighting History

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The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend is upon us, and it will bring lots of formal celebrations, but not much of this will be shown on TV. There's a reason for that.

World's Fair Use Day (WFUD) is a free, all-day celebration of the doctrine of fair use: the legal right that allows innovators and creators to make particular uses of copyrighted materials. WFUD will take place at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on Tuesday January 12, 2010, and will be organized by Public Knowledge (PK), a Washington D.C.-based non-profit, consumer-advocacy group. PK works to ensure that communications and intellectual property policies encourage creativity, further free expression and discourse and provide universal access to knowledge. As part of its campaign to return balance to copyright law, PK hopes to use WFUD to educate the public about the importance of fair use in an information society.

WFUD will be widely attended and will provide attendees with a unique opportunity to network with policymakers, artists, academics, business innovators, media professionals, press, and consumer advocates.

Martin Luther King, Jr was a great man. Let's get that out of the way first. He has a federal holiday honoring his life, which is fine. Have you ever wondered though, why there hasn't been a biopic? Well, there was...
shepard fairey Pictures, Images and PhotosKing: A Filmed Record; Montgomery to Memphis was initially screened, and for one night only, in 1970 in more than 600 theaters across the United States. The tribute to the late Dr.King, while a huge artistic and financial success, has essentially been out of public circulation since then. This is because the film violated copyright, and the King family had it suppressed as soon as they heard about it. There have been a few others over the years, but unlike the Kennedys, the Kings have been very careful to make sure most of what the great man did is unavailable to historians without getting paid.

For years Eyes on the Prize was unavailable because of rights issues (to be fair, the Kings weren't the only people involved).

The question of the "fair use" exception in copyright law is contentious. The Sonny Bono law has hurt the arts tremendously over the years, and it and it's cousin over in Europe has produced a great deal of litigation most recently over the Tintin property, when the widow of the cartoonist and her current husband have been suing pretty much everyone who even mentions the character, who is a major part of pop culture over there.
tintin Pictures, Images and Photos

Shepard Fairey's famous "HOPE" poster and the bruhaha over using copyrighted material as reference is a good example of what the problem is about.
Obama Pictures, Images and Photos
On the one hand, it's difficult to create non-abstract art without reference, and on the other the creators of the original material have a right to make a profit of of their works. On the third hand, there are some images and people who are so important to the culture of country or the world that copyright has to be bent somewhat. Like Tintin and MLK.

As a judge allegedly said in the case of Berlin v. E.C. Publications, "I don't think I have to pay you a nickel every time I sing in the shower."