Our Failed Copyright System In Not MLK’s Fault

Martin Luther King JrToday is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And apparently, tonight, Chris Hayes will use All In to rebroadcast it and then discuss it. That will be at 5:00 Pacific Time. It ought to be good. But it is something of a big deal because the speech itself is under copyright and will be until 2038 at least. (Congress keeps extending copyright protections because of the threat of total cultural collapse when Micky Mouse faces of threat of being turned into a porn star. Really.)

There are people who are really bothered by this. And while I think our copyright system is completely messed up, I’m not too concerned about the issue here. It ought to go without saying that the speech ought to be in the public domain; it is part of our heritage. Just the same, “Yesterday” ought to be in the public domain too, but I don’t see people getting upset about that. (Other than me.) The truth of the matter is that it is not, as is often claimed, that you just can’t see the full speech. Here is a text copy of the original speech: I Have a Dream Speech. And here is the whole speech on YouTube:

It is something of an faith matter among liberals that King and the speech have been neutered. It is said that people focus on the most lyrical aspects of the speech because that is all that they have heard. I think this is hogwash. People always focus on the poetry of speeches and not the substance. And if the speech were in the public domain that would be all the more reason that television stations would avoid airing it, if its length (17 minutes) weren’t enough.

Of course, there is a bigger issue here. It isn’t just that the “I have a dream” speech is under copyright. The documentary of the civil rights struggle Eyes on the Prize has largely been unavailable since its release due to the increasing costs of archival footage—including the “I Have a Dream” speech. And that’s the thing about copyright: it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. It no longer, in net, causes more content to be created. And in this case, the King estate has explicitly hindered the civil rights movement. For younger people, most of what they know about the civil rights movement comes from Eyes on the Prize. Keeping it out of print for 13 years over copyright rents is an affront to the civil rights movement and its legacy.

But are we really to blame the descendants of King for being greedy bastards when they are hardly the focus of the problem? I don’t see many children who inherit properties turning them over to charity. And regardless, it was Disney and other corporations who keep pushing for longer and longer copyright. True, the King estate could have done something other than hand the dirty business over to EMI. And so the King estate is part of the problem. But the main problem is systematic and it needs to be addressed.

Meanwhile, watch the speech. It is really good. It absolutely deserves its reputation!


Note how I didn’t end this article with something lame like, “We must fix the copyright system so that our cultural treasures are free at last.” Oops!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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