The Copyright on “I Have a Dream”

Permit me to take a small detour from our regularly scheduled patent nonsense to veer into a different IP domain.

When the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, it was in a much different copyright regime than what we currently live under. Under the present law, all you need to do to trigger federal copyright in your writing is to put it into some “tangible medium”–in other words, write it down.

File:Martin Luther King - March on Washington.jpg
MLK Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech.
This image is actually in the public domain.

But in 1963, when King gave the speech, we were still operating under the Copyright Act of 1909. In that world, you had common law copyright until you registered your work with the Copyright Office, at which stage the federal law took effect. King never registered his copyright, and so there was a question of whether his estate owned the rights to the text.

CBS used footage from the speech in a documentary they did about the 20th century, and refused to pay royalties to King’s estate. Just generic evil big corporation stuff, snubbing the family of the most famous civil rights leader of the century while selling his work. The resulting lawsuit came to whether, under common law, King’s public performance amounted to a “general publication” of the speech, which would have essentially dedicated the speech to the public domain.

The trial court actually granted summary judgment to CBS, ruling that the speech was a general publication. In this case, that meant that the lower court thought it was so legally clear that King’s estate had no rights to the speech that they couldn’t even go to trial.

On appeal, the argument hinged on whether the speech was a “performance” or a “publication.” I won’t get into the details of the legal argument, which are fiddly and obsolete for anything published in the past half-century. You can read the full decision here: https://casetext.com/case/estate-of-martin-luther-king-v-cbs-inc.

The Court of Appeals overruled the trial court, holding that King’s speech was a performance and, thus, did not enter the public domain. Once that decision was in place, the case went back to the trial court, and the parties settled. I don’t know the details of the settlement, but presumably King’s family got the royalties they were looking for.

This is a huge way that copyright law differs from patent law. Whereas you can quickly lose your rights to an invention by publishing your work, copyright is much more durable. Registering your copyright up front has advantages–in this case it would have avoided the entire lawsuit–but delaying won’t ruin everything in the same way it would with a patent.

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