The King children are at it again: demanding consultation (and presumably payment) for any work on their father. Recently, I wrote a column denouncing the King family’s history of bilking authors, institutions, and even the King Memorial committee for money. Now, two children are objecting to a movie on the life of Martin Luther King Jr, by Dreamworks due to the temerity of the creators not to seek their blessing and permission. They are threatening legal action. If Dreamworks has an ounce of civic pride and love for Martin Luther King, it will tell these King kids to get lost and invite such a lawsuit. Their brother, Dexter, reportedly cut a deal with Dreamworks, which should detail any such payments. I fail to see the basis of such a lawsuit, but also why companies continue to enable this family in controlling and cashing in on King’s legacy.
This would be the company’s first big screen project on King.
While Dexter King said that movie would “be the definitive film” on his father’s legacy, Bernice King and Martin Luther King III threatened a lawsuit. Referring to herself, Bernice King objected to the fact that any company would consider a movie on King when “‘[t]hey don’t have the blessings of Bernice and Martin King.”
What concerns me is that two other kids object to Dreamworks engaging in a business deal with their brother without their being part of the deal. Once again, it is not clear why a company has to give King’s family any such deal — a practice that is encouraging this predatorial conduct. King’s family has a copyright on the “I Have a Dream” speech and demands payment for its use. Martin Luther King himself reportedly ran out and made the claim on the speech himself, which diminishes his stature. A court upheld the copyright protection on the speech. Here is what the Eleventh Circuit said about the claim in one such case involving CBS brought by the family:
On September 30, 1963, approximately one month after the delivery of the Speech, Dr. King took steps to secure federal copyright protection for the Speech under the Copyright Act of 1909, and a certificate of registration of his claim to copyright was issued by the Copyright Office on October 2, 1963. Almost immediately thereafter, Dr. King filed suit in the Southern District of New York to enjoin the unauthorized sale of recordings of the Speech and won a preliminary injunction on December 13, 1963. King v. Mister Maestro, Inc., 224 F. Supp. 101 (S.D.N Y 1963).
The 11th Circuit and other courts treat such speeches as the same as songs and poems performed on the mall. The question is whether this is a logical rule. I do not see why speakers on the mall should not agree that any speech is waived as belonging to the public domain. It is a great honor to speak to the nation from the Mall. It seems ridiculous to try to convince a nation to follow your view on a subject like desegregation or equality and then charge anyone who uses your words. A song or a poem is written to entertain beyond any given event. A speech is part of the public debate and these copyright claims chill speech, as shown by the King family.
When you give a speech on the congressional mall, it should belong to the nation. More importantly, Congress should have premised the creation of the King memorial on the family releasing this speech to the public domain (as President release their documents in exchange for presidential libraries).
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