MLK: Honoring His Legacy and Impact on Copyright Law

Attribution @jpellgen
Attribution @jpellgen


The great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. would have been eighty-nine years old today, Monday, January 15, 2018. Outside of his world-famous speeches and beliefs, Martin Luther King Jr.’s accomplishments include being one of the youngest graduates of Morehouse College, where he was ordained as a pastor before graduating with a degree in sociology. He also received a doctorate in systematic theology, was imprisoned nearly thirty times, and at the age of thirty-five, was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. King, upon being notified of his selection, announced he would turn over his prize money to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.

While copyright is generally not the first thing that many people think of when thinking of this great leader, Martin Luther King Jr.’s impact on copyright law is quite big and should be mentioned.

Copyright law protects Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. After the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963, Dr. King spoke with Motown Records to discuss distributing the speech. Unfortunately, other record companies were ahead of him and began to sell unauthorized recordings. After Dr. King registered the text of his speech with the U.S. Copyright Office in Fall of 1963, he sued the record companies who sold unauthorized copies of the speech.

In King v. Mister Maestro, the key issue came down to whether Dr. King had “published” the speech prior to satisfying the requirements of the 1909 Copyright Act, such as “affixing it to a copyright notice.” The record companies argued that Dr. King had relinquished his copyright protection by delivering the speech in public and distributing copies of the speech to the press. The Court held in favor of Dr. King, however, and decided that publicly delivering a speech was not publishing a written work. It also decided that distributing the speech to the press was a “limited publication.” Because the Fair Use doctrine was not codified until the 1976 Copyright Act, it was not considered in the decision and so in December of 1963, the Court enjoined any further distribution of the unauthorized recordings.

To this day, Dr. King’s heirs aggressively enforce the copyright on the speech. In 1988, Dr. King’s Estate sued CBS after the television company aired over 60% of the “I Have A Dream” speech during a documentary. The Estate is also well known for fighting back on the unauthorized commercial exploitation of Dr. King.

Another lesser-known fact is that the first verse of “We Shall Overcome” is not covered under copyright law. Dr. King reportedly first heard the song performed by Pete Seeger in 1957 and began incorporating the lyrics into his speeches. It is said that he even recited the lyrics in his final sermon. In 2016, two filmmakers who wanted to include the song in their productions brought a class action lawsuit before the Southern District of New York because they felt hindered by defendant music publishers and their demands for licensing fees. The song itself appeared to originate from up to four different works, including an African-American spiritual, a 1900 hymn, a version adopted by a labor movement, and a recorded version learned from tobacco workers in 1946.

Because the Court was only considering the final verse of the entire song, however, the summary judgment opinion only addressed the first verse and was partial. The music publishers promised not to sue on the other verses, leaving the other verses of the song uncovered.

Due to Dr. King’s profound impact on civil rights, social justice and, intellectual property, EverydayIP salutes him today and always.

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