Copyright Keeps May Children From Hearing “I Have a Dream Speech”

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is easily one of the most iconic — if not the iconic — American speech of the 20th century. And thanks to the King Foundation’s ironclad grip on King’s work, many schools cannot allow their students to listen to or watch the speech. Not a few of them use illegal methods to pass on the complete text of the speech to their student.

According to The Washington Post,

All of King’s speeches and papers are owned by his family, which has gone to court several times since the 1990s to protect its copyright; King obtained rights to his most famous speech a month after he gave it. Now, those who want to hear or use the speech in its entirety must buy a copy sanctioned by the King family, which receives the proceeds.

. . .

When King was killed, his family was left without much money. The family earns income from licensing his image and charging fees for the use of his speeches. Some of his papers are free for researchers to look through. The King family did not respond to queries for this article.

Joseph Beck, an attorney for the King family and an expert in intellectual property rights, said, “The King family has always supported providing access to the speech and to the video for educational purchases and encourages interested persons to contact the King Center in Atlanta.” According to the family’s Web site, videotapes and audiotapes of the speech can be purchased for $10, but one copy often is not enough for an entire school, and many schools don’t know what materials are available.

Many schools use the text — often taken in violation of the copyright from the Internet. The King family, however, wants teachers to use the speech and has not pursued legal action against educators, Carson said.

$10/copy sounds cheap until you need fifty copies, and you’re a school on an extraordinarily tight budget. Moreover, Beck’s assertion that the King family isn’t going to pursue certain types of copyright violations isn’t worth the electrons its printed on at the Post’s website. No legal adviser worth anything is going to suggest to a school that they simply go ahead and break the law because the King family probably won’t sue them.

Similar problems have pretty much made the excellent documentary about the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize, from use in the classroom in recent years. When it was first made, the producers of the documentary bought time-limited permission to reproduce archival footage. When they went to re-release the documentary, the archival footage owners upped their licensing costs to ridiculous amounts, making it prohibitively expensive to re-release the documentary.


King’s Fiery Speech Rarely Heard. Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, January 15, 2006.

The Future of Copyright Laws

Today ZDNET writes about Bruce Lehman forming a group to defend the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Lehman ran the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a number of years and was one of the folks who helped write the copyright laws. Now he says the anti-copyright forces are winning the battle over the DMCA.

Unfortunately Lehman and other pro-copyright folks such as Jack Valenti don’t seem to understand why the DMCA is despised so much. The DMCA is an extreme piece of legislation that gives far too much power to copyright holders, who have demonstrated that they are more than willing to use this power in ways that many people find questionable.

Most people I know, for example, find nothing unethical about taking a compact discs they own and copying multiple tracks to a cassette to take the gym. It is the position of most of the major content providers, however, that consumers should essentially pay a fee for every single device they plan to listen to music on. The idea that in the future people will be forced to simply license music is one that many find absurd.

ZDNET mentions another absurdity in the DMCA’s ban on even attempting to circumvent copy protection. The Supreme Court has already made it clear that consumers have a right to make backup copies of software, music, etc., and the DMCA’s pro-copy protection stance strikes me and others as a blatant attempt to make an end run around the rights of consumers. It seems to have the same legitimacy as a law that would say, “Well the Supreme Court says we can’t enjoin speech prior to publication and we have no problem with that, but from now on you’ll have to have a license to buy paper and sign an agreement not to print things we don’t like on said paper.”

The main reason that copyright is coming under such withering criticism is that Lehman and others intentionally hitched the future of copyrights to the DMCA, perhaps thinking their Draconian anti-copying provisions would gain some legitimacy by being portrayed as simply an extension of long standing copyright law. Instead, exactly the opposite happened. People rejected the DMCA provisions and then said, “Wait a minute, if this is what it takes to enforce copyrights, maybe there’s something fundamentally wrong with the concept of intellectual property in the first place.”

MathWorld’s Copyright Problems.

The O’Reilly Network recently featured an article by John McDonald, Treasure Trove Looted, which shed some light on situation surrounding Eric Weisstein’s MathWorld. I had heard the problems involved copyright issues, but assumed they involved the sort of copyright issues that are more common with the Internet where copyrighted material gets posted on a web site. In this case, though, the problem is far more complex and contains a great lesson for authors.

It seems that Weisstein’s site, which contained a lot of valuable information about math-related topics, became so successful that he successfully pitched a book proposal to CRC Press and much of the content Weisstein wrote for the web site became a book, The CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics.

Here’s where it starts to get weird. After publishing the book, CRC Press informed Weisstein that its contract with him clearly granted CRC Press ownership of any derivative works, and the web site was just such a derivative work. After some back and forth, the site is completely shut down as of this writing. In effect, CRC Press maintains they bought the copyright not to just the book, but to the web site as well, and they don’t want the web site competing with the book.

First, the logic here is completely backward. The web site will only promote sales of the book. Since there is still no good way to electronically access reference materials consistently, its unlikely the existence of the web pages would have cut into sales the book (more likely fans of the site would have made up a substantial number of the book’s buyers).

Second, Weisstein apparently made a huge mistake by not making sure the web site wasn’t considered a derivative work before he signed his publishing contract. I mean I don’t know about you, but if Random House calls and tells me they want me to write a book about overpopulation based on my web site, the first thing I’d want is my lawyer and their lawyers coming to an agreement that the book contract wouldn’t affect the copyright of the web site.

In fact a couple years ago when I was contacted by a publisher who bought the rights to republish an essay I’d written for one of my web sites, I made darn sure that they were not purchasing the copyright as well and my future use of the essay would not be restricted in any way.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve stopped working for companies that wanted me to sign away more of the rights for my writing than I was willing to do. Some people I know have looked at me a bit skeptically when I’ve mentioned this, considering it an overreaction on my part. On the other hand it’s cases like Weisstein’s that show just how important it is to understand the legal ramifications of what you’re doing before you sign any sort of publishing contract.