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.