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Martin Luther King, Inc.

Excerpted from Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity

by Kembrew McLeod | Issue #24

By today's legal standards, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a copyright criminal. So were blues musicians, jazz musicians and other African Americans who treated words and melodies as communal wealth, not private property.

In the post-internet world, newly created works have to stand on their own as wholly original, untainted by earlier works. This was not the case with oral cultures. Oral tradition was central to African-American culture in part because laws forbade slaves from learning to read or write. During and after slavery, African American folk preachers gained stature in their community by merging words and ideas in their sermons with those of older, more established preachers. "In this context," argues scholar Keith Miller, "striking originality might have seemed self-centered or otherwise suspect."

While growing up, Martin Luther King Jr. absorbed this tradition, hearing religious themes and metaphors that originated during slavery. Two sermons King surely heard as a child, "The Eagle Stirs Her Nest" and "Dry Bones in the Valley," date back to the end of slavery and continue to be heard in black churches today. Earlier black folk preachers worked from the assumption that language is created by everyone and that it should not be considered private property. Like many who straddle two cultures, King created a hybrid system that integrated the Western print tradition of academia with African oral culture. One of the greatest things about King was his ability to integrate different belief systems (Christianity, Gandhi's teachings, Thoreau's ideas about civil disobedience), remixing and rearticulating ideas that white America held dear. In doing so, he made whites realize that the black freedom struggle was important not just for blacks, but for society as a whole.

King was posthumously criticized for plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation, which spun off into criticisms that some of his sermons and speeches also contained phrases that were not his. The Wall Street Journal broke the story on its front page in 1990, and it was also front-page news for the New York Times and other major U.S. newspapers. Many journalists emphasized that King was well aware of the principles of academic citation, and they wondered why King swiped the words and ideas of others without giving proper credit. This confusion was intensified by the fact that King didn't attempt to hide what he did. One story quoted a researcher as asking, "Why didn't he know better?" and "Why did he do it? Was he so insecure that he thought this was the only way to get by?"

So in 1993, when King's estate filed suit against USA Today, you might expect it would have been for slanderously questioning King's integrity. Instead, it was for copyright infringement. The newspaper had the audacity to reprint King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the thirtieth anniversary of the day he delivered it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "It is unfortunate that we were forced to bring this action against USA Today," the estate declared in a press release. "Because of the blatant nature of the infringement, however, we felt we had no choice." The King estate has a history of tightly controlling the late civil-rights leader's copyrights, and has pursued matters legally numerous times, all while selling his image to advertisers.

In 1995, King's son Dexter consulted with the estate managers of another King--the "King of Rock n' Roll"--and returned from Graceland with a new kind of dream: to aggressively control his father's image for profit's sake. I'll never forget the bolt of anger I felt when I first saw the Cingular cell-phone commercial that digitally doctored footage of King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech. As the camera pans across the Washington Mall, the entire crowd has been erased, and King is speaking to no one. "Before you can inspire," went the voice-over, "you must first connect." I'd like to connect my foot to whoever's ass approved this commercial. It would be inspiring.

The King estate clearly doesn't care how much significance those words hold within our culture, or that circulation of that speech in USA Today might benefit society. The estate doesn't even allow fragmentary quoting without payment; for it, there is no such thing as fair use. For instance, in the 1970s, Bruce Gronbeck--a world-renowned scholar of political rhetoric and a colleague in my department--discovered that the cost of reprinting sections of "I Have a Dream" exceeded the publication budget for a speech-communication textbook he coauthored. This meant it had to be deleted from the 1974 version of Principles and Types of Speech Communication and all later editions.

As a little experiment, I sent the King estate an e-mail inquiry about reprinting four sentences from "I Have a Dream" in a scholarly book. A few weeks later I received a contract in the mail from Writers House LLC, which licenses King's copyrights. The only way I could reprint those four sentences was to hand over two hundred dollars and adhere to nine other restrictive contractual stipulations. "I have a dream that one day ... my heirs will shill my image in cell-phone ads and charge scholars fifty dollars a sentence to reprint this speech." Inspiring.