U.S. copyright law should not stand in the way of artists who wish to amplify the message of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., writes guest columnist Alex Alben.

Share story

“I AM happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

The date was Aug. 28, 1963. The place was the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The speaker was the 34-year-old Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 1960s, the eventual recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize hit his stride in terms of his rhetoric and his political movement. King opined not only on the status of race in the United States, but also on the growing moral bankruptcy of our involvement in the war in Vietnam and the looming impact of globalization on our lives. Had he not fallen to an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., there is little doubt that his leadership would have gone far beyond the civil-rights movement to the other critical issues facing our country and our world.

Director Ava DuVernay’s new film “Selma” dramatizes the voter-rights movement led by King, which culminated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Although Oscar nomination controversy arose when both the director and lead actors in “Selma” failed to garner any nominations, the film has been nominated for best picture. Historians have also criticized the film’s portrayal of the relationship between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, depicting LBJ to be far more antagonistic to the civil-rights movement than might be warranted by a full study of the era.

Nevertheless, this important film comes to American and global audiences at a key time of introspection in race relations, with a particular emphasis necessitated by the events in Ferguson, Mo., this past summer and a growing sense that police are using the wrong tactics to deal with minority communities.

Sadly, due to the actions of King’s heirs, one of the pivotal moments leading up to the events at Selma has been intentionally distorted because King’s estate did not agree to a licensing agreement to use actual passages from the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Because the speech itself is not in the public domain, the estate is able to extract monetary payments from commercial ventures, such as feature films, that wish to utilize King’s work. While the estate legitimately seeks to control royalties from sales of T-shirts and other merchandise that use King’s words and likeness, it’s difficult to see how his legacy is advanced by this pecuniary stance regarding his speeches.

King wrote and delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech in order to promote racial justice in America, not with a purpose to enrich his heirs. In fact, his speeches were published and broadcast without copyright notice and he did not seek compensation for them during his lifetime. As a writer, I have the right to excerpt King’s speech to express opinion, which is considered fair use under copyright law and also falls under broad First Amendment protection. Similarly, filmmakers should have the right to dramatize King’s story to a new generation of Americans without having to “pay the piper” to be historically accurate. Copyright law should not stand in the way of those artists who wish to amplify King’s message.

Lacking the negotiated right to use King’s brilliant actual words forced the filmmakers to paraphrase and distort the facts of history in the process. Is this the right balance of values under our copyright law?

By virtue of his eloquence and the gravity of what he had to say to the world, King transcended the commercial purpose of a speech. As a transformative historical figure — like Gandhi or Mandela — his enduring genius transcends his family’s right to monetize his legacy in all cases. Let’s strike a better balance by having Congress carve out a clear fair-use exception in copyright law for speeches of historical importance, so that artists, writers and filmmakers can use the words of public figures, such as King, without fear of an economic holdup.

In a sensitive time in the evolving debate over whether we have reached that “oasis of freedom and justice” that King aspired to for all Americans, regardless of race, we would all benefit from the ability to clearly hear King’s actual words unedited and at length in important new works, such as “Selma.”