Today is a momentus day. It’s the second inauguration of Barak Obama, the first African-American President of the United States. Today is also the day on which we honor the memory and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest American civil rights leader of all time.
Unlike President Obama, however, Reverend King lead from the sidelines not as a politician but as a voice of conscience. While President Obama can give a good speech none compare to the speeches Reverend King gave on bad days. Reverend King was one of the greatest orators of all time.
But Reverend King was not an elected official. When he gave a speech, whether from the pulpit of a church in Memphis or from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, he did so as a public citizen. Under the copyright law in effect while he was alive, Reverend King retained the copyright in his speeches regardless of their import to our society. Had Reverend King been a federally elected politician or appointed official the copyrights would vest with his employer, the American people, and be in the public domain.
However, as a lay leader with a talent for words one of the greatest legacies he left his widow and children were the value those words had. Associates of Reverend King speak of his generosity but it is important to remember that when he died at the hand of an assassin in my hometown, he had left nothing other than those words for his family. In fact it is likely that Reverend King knew that the words he wrote had value as he registered the copyrights in his speeches with the Library of Congress as the Copyright Act of 1909 required.
Over the years since Reverend King’s untimely passing his widow, and children, have struggled with balancing their interest in his legacy with the interest we all have in it. They have exerted control over the words to prevent uses that they felt would not honor Reverend King’s legacy, as well as situations where the use would compete with their interests. Exerting that control is well within the family’s right as the holder of the exclusive rights to the copyrights in the speeches Reverend King wrote.
Though King’s family is well within their rights when they exercise control over the speeches, many (okay probably most) people find the practice discomforting. Didn’t Reverend King write those words for all of us? Aren’t we all supposed to heed the words in his speeches?
Slate has published an editorial which supposes that tweeting the words of a Martin Luther King speech would be a form of civil disobedience because the action would infringe the copyrights. The author of the article completely ignores that some uses of the speech, in its entirety as well as segments, may be appropriate without permission from, or compensation to, the King family under the concept of Fair Use. According to the editorial, a video was removed from YouTube because it included a clip of one of Reverend King’s speeches as an example of copyright being too restrictive. As I can’t find the video I can’t comment on how the clip was used but it seems to me that Mr. Ammori, the author of the ediotrial, could have made a fair use argument under the commentary exception. However, instead he, like others, attacks the concept of copyright because the King family feigns to control Reverend King’s legacy. Most importantly he ignores that Reverend King took the time to register his copyrights to prevent his works from being deemed to be in the public domain.