MLK's Family Literally Owns All His Speeches. Here's Why and How

February 16th 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

Grade school children across the country were invited to see the movie "Selma" for free. Black business leaders across the country raised money to provide students with free tickets; Michael Moore offered kids free tickets at his movie theater in Michigan. It's great that so many school-aged children were able to see this film because it provides a valuable American history lesson – particularly at a time where protest activity has increased around the country. 

Unfortunately, students were not given the opportunity to hear any of Dr. King's groundbreaking speeches in the film. That is because the film doesn't include any direct quotes from the brilliant orator. Believe it or not, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches are copyrighted, and filmmakers could not use his words in the movie without fear of being sued. Dr. King's family owns the rights to his speeches and papers and are famously litigious. They have sued multiple news outlets for reproducing his speeches and even charged over $700,000 to allow Dr. King's likeness and words to be used on the MLK memorial in Washington D.C. While they prevent these outlets with an educational mission from disseminating their father's message, they have allowed corporations such as AT&T to purchase his words for use in commercials. It is estimated that the King family has made about $50 million on his legacy. 

It is easy to resent his family for exacting this control because we might feel that, as Americans, King's words belong to all of us. But, they don't. They belong to his kids. While it may seem that greed is the family's sole motivation for exacting such tight control over King's works, they also have an interest in protecting their father's public image. The family sold the movie rights to his life to Dreamworks in 2009 for a film being produced by Steven Spielberg. This was before director Ana DuVernay was attached to "Selma." But no one can blame a family for trusting Spielberg over the previously unknown DuVernay (even with Oprah Winfrey lending street cred to the project). By selling the rights to Dreamworks, they can require that the company consult with them on the content of the film and portray their father in the way they would like the public to see him. While the extra-marital affairs depicted in "Selma" are mostly public knowledge by now, would you authorize a film that included scenes depicting your father cheating on your mother? Some critics have also disagreed with "Selma"'s depiction of Coretta Scott King as a jealous wife resentful of her husband's devotion to the movement, saying that she was just as devoted to the fight for civil rights as he was. By only allowing certain outlets access to his words, his family has attempted to ensure that Dr. King's actual words are used only in art presented in the way in which they believe he would have wanted.

Additionally, the family might be trying to protect King's legacy from being co-opted by various special interest groups. For instance, some have incorrectly claimed that Dr. King was anti-choice and an advocate of color-blindness. All of which is false and the exact opposite of his actual views. In fact, King was a radical liberal who supported Planned Parenthood, considered himself a "race man," and was quite vocal in his critiques of capitalism. So much so that he was considered a Communist enemy of the state by many at the time. Demanding input into any art that uses his words allows the family to have some control over the extent to which people can use King's words to promote a cause. While "Selma" was an unauthorized film that represented him fairly accurately, other projects might not be as fair. No, the family cannot prevent unfair films from being made, but they can blunt a movie's power by denying it King's true words.

It's all Mickey Mouse's Fault 

But should our system really allow historic speeches to be owned by anyone? Copyrights are intended to protect and incentivize artists who intend to make a financial profit off of their works, and it is pretty safe to assume that Dr. King was not inspired to write speeches by the possibility of future royalty checks. Otherwise he would have like sold tickets to marches or something. Copyright law also already allows for using small portions of copyrighted works in new works under the "fair use" provision. In order to encourage creativity, you are allowed to use a certain small percentage (a clip, a quote) of a copyrighted work for educational or entertainment purposes. Most major movie studios do not include "fair use" material in films, however, because they fear lawsuits, which are expensive even if you win and disastrous if you lose. 

What makes things complicated is that the amount of time that a work can be held under copyright has increased exponentially. The first copyright law in 1790 set a 14-year term, renewable for an additional 14 years if the author was still alive. In 1831 it was changed to a 28-year tern, with a 14-year renewal; and in 1909 it became 28 years with a 28 year renewal.

And then came Mickey Mouse. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Steamboat Willy," was animated in 1928. Under the existing law at the time, Disney would have been able to keep Mickey Mouse under copyright for only 56 years. In 1976, Disney lobbied Congress to increase copyright terms before they lost the rights to Mickey. Congress obliged, increasing the copyright term to the author's life plus 50 years and granted a retroactive extension for works authored by corporations -- keeping Mickey as Disney's property for 75 years (until 2003). In 1998, Congress extended copyright again to the life of the author plus 70 years and extending corporate works to 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation (whichever comes first). Meaning Mickey is now covered until 2023. Smart money is on Disney lobbying Congress again soon.

Presumably, the reasons Disney goes to such great lengths to keep Mickey under copyright make perfect sense. Mickey Mouse makes them a lot of money, and Disney doesn't want to share that money with other artists or companies. Non-Disney uses of Mickey could tarnish his image and make difficulties for the company (come on, you know the second that Mickey and Minnie aren't under copyright they will be starring in all kinds of porn). And it's hard to imagine any profound educational or artistic works that are being stifled by keeping Mickey out of public circulation.

Of course, it is very easy to imagine the profound educational and artistic opportunities that would come from allowing Dr. King's words to be included in more works. But the first two examples still apply, who, if not his children, deserves to profit off of his message? And if his family didn't protect his image and historical legacy, who will?