20 January 2020

Happy Martin Luther King Jr.® day!

In the United States, the third Monday of January is Martin Luther King Jr.® Day. Due to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, it doesn’t fall on his actual birthday of 15 January 1929, but it’s close enough. It’s a day to honor the life and acts of civil rights leader and Christian martyr, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.® He was one of the principal leaders in the 1950s civil rights movement, and a pastor in the Progressive National Baptist Convention. (One of that denomination’s founders… after the National Baptist Convention, USA, ousted King® and other activists for being too activist.)

One of the few photos of Dr. King® in the public domain. Wikimedia

So… what’s with all the little registered-trademark symbols (®) next to his name throughout this article? It’s because Martin Luther King Jr.,® his likeness, words, speeches, books, writings, and so forth, are owned by the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., which is wholly owned by King’s® children Martin III, Dexter, and Bernice. (Eldest daughter Yolanda died in 2007.) Use any of these things without the Estate’s permission, and when the Estate finds out they’ll sue you for infringement. I’m not kidding.

The Estate got serious about defending their copyrights in the 1990s. On 28 August 1993, USA Today honored the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, by publishing King’s® 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. Sounds nice… but the Estate quickly sued the newspaper, which settled in 1994 for $10,000 in attorney’s fees and court costs, plus the standard $1,700 licensing fee. Yep, that’s how much it cost to publish the speech in the ’90s.

The Estate also sued CBS for including video of “I Have a Dream” in their 1994 documentary series 20th Century with Mike Wallace. They also sued producer Henry Hampton for including it in his 1987 PBS civil rights series Eyes on the Prize. Hampton paid $100,000, and PBS didn’t broadcast the series again till 2006; it first had to purchase the rights to include the King® footage. Whereas CBS fought the Estate in court till 1999, arguing this was a newsworthy public speech. A lower court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned it: Giving the speech in public doesn’t count as giving it away to the public.

King’s® children routinely claim they’re not trying to profit off their father’s legacy: They’re only trying to keep opportunists from sullying his image. Which is a valid concern.

Problem is, everyone knows this argument is utter rubbish.

There’s millions in King’s® estate.

The MLK Estate is a for-profit corporation, chaired by Martin Luther King III. It owns, as I said, King’s® stuff. His personal effects. His writings and speeches and sermons.

This stuff is licensed by Intellectual Properties Management, another for-profit corporation, chaired by Dexter King. You want a copy of anything, you contact IPM. They work thorough music publisher EMI Publishing—and music publishers’ sole purpose is to make money from existing recordings. They’re entirely about profit.

Every so often, the Estate tries to sell King’s® effects. In 2006 the Estate put King’s® personal papers up for auction, hoping for a $30 million bid. Bit of a scandal, considering their historical value. Philanthropists privately bought the papers off the Estate for an undisclosed amount, and donated them to Morehouse College, where King® was an undergrad.

Four years ago, Martin and Dexter sued Bernice because the men wanted to sell King’s® Nobel Peace Prize, and his personal travel bible, to a private collector. Bernice, who considers them sacred, wouldn’t surrender them till a county judge ordered her to do so, in a ruling on 15 August 2016. King’s® personal effects aren’t to be found in museums; not even the recently-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Estate won’t even lend stuff to the Smithsonian.

King® speeches have been licensed to plenty of advertisers. The licensing fees actually aren’t bad if you’re a non-profit organization, but if you’re for-profit (like, say, nearly every textbook publisher) it’s gonna cost you a bundle. The result: You’ve probably seen more of King’s® work thorough advertisements for Apple and Mercedes, than you have in your history classes. Irritating but true.

Back in graduate school I showed “I Have a Dream” in its entirety to some of my fellow students. (I ripped it from MLK Online, back when the website still displayed the video for free. Pretty sure in so doing, I violated copyright laws. But the statute of limitations ran out years ago, so nyahh.) The students, some of whom were old enough to have seen it originally broadcast, all commented they’d never seen it in its entirety. Nor read it. ’Cause American history textbook publishers don’t care to pay exorbitant licensing fees either. That’s a lot of the reason why the textbooks tend to focus all their attention on everything before the 1990s: The more recent the history, the more it costs to include.

I should also note the Martin Luther King Memorial, which opened in 2011 in Washington D.C. The Estate received $800,000 for the rights to use King’s® likeness and dozens of his quotes. I say “received” because it wasn’t reported how much the Estate charged. Yep, for a national memorial to honor their father. Without the fat licensing fee, I’m guessing the King Memorial would’ve been as featureless as the Washington Monument.

The side effect of all these licensing restrictions? Outside of the odd documentary who wants to pay off the Estate, I’m betting nearly all of you have never heard more than 30 seconds of a King® speech. You’ve never read more than a pull quote of something he wrote. You’ve never read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” nor heard “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in context. Schoolchildren go their entire lives without ever hearing King® was a pastor, a Christian minister, a preacher; without learning his civil rights activities were largely done within the context of the black church; without learning his speeches were nearly always sermons.

Can’t even quote King® in movies about him. The 2014 movie Selma, fr’instance: Screenwriter Paul Webb couldn’t quote a single King® speech directly. Couldn’t quote a single sentence directly, knowing how litigious the Estate gets. The only movie producer who could is Steven Spielberg, who got the film rights from the Estate in 2009, for a movie he’s yet to even start production on. But because Spielberg has the rights, it shuts out every other production that wants to portray King® with the man’s actual words. The best they can do is paraphrase.

Hey, it’s how copyright law works.

After CBS lost its case, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl ran a hit piece in 2001 bashing the King family, accusing them of profiteering off King’s® legacy. Yet she never bothered to ask whether it’s wrong for the Kings to make a profit from King’s® works. After all, it’s precisely what CBS was trying to do by including “I Have a Dream” in the 20th Century with Mike Wallace series: Make a few bucks by repackaging CBS archival video.

Are the Kings entitled to profit from King’s® works? Well, of course they are. They’re his heirs.

King® was a well-known public figure. But he wasn’t an elected official, nor a public servant. He was still a private citizen. His writings and speeches, regardless of how historically important they are, still wholly belonged to him. And now they belong to the MLK Estate. American copyright law states King’s® work belongs to the Estate till 70 years after his death. They don’t enter the public domain till 1 January 2039.

Assuming they ever do enter the public domain. Y’see, the Walt Disney Company regularly lobbies Congress to keep pushing back the expiration date. ’Cause everything Walt Disney created will enter the public domain in 2036. But if Disney gets its way, nothing from the 20th century will ever enter the public domain again. Forget about the 21st century altogether.

It’s been argued (’cause CBS tried) that King® wrote his articles and preached his sermons for everybody to read and hear. But King® never took steps to definitively put them in the public domain. In fact when record companies tried to sell “I Have a Dream” without his permission, he put a stop to ’em. His works continued to belong to him. Therefore they’re his children’s inheritance. All his stuff is now their stuff.

I doubt King® ever fathomed they’d do as they’re currently doing with it. Lots of people point out King® made a point of a frugal lifestyle—as befitting the pastor of a poor community. But then again, had King® not been martyred in 1968, he might’ve survived to see his works increase greatly in value, and might’ve tried to make some money off them to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Or even the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change—the nonprofit his wife founded, and Bernice King currently runs.

As things are, the King family can do as they choose with King’s® works. They can publish them (as they do), or not. They can donate the originals to museums and universities, or sell ’em to private collectors. They can license King’s® image to phone and computer and car companies for advertising, or even license him to the cartoon sitcom The Boondocks so one of the characters could imagine him surviving till the present day, then calling the people of today “a bunch of trifling, shiftless, good-for-nothing n-----s,” and giving up on them to move to Canada. (And that episode actually won a Peabody Award in 2006.)

Heck, if the King children were resentful of their father for being too busy with social justice causes while they were growing up, they could make a bonfire of everything and whiz on the ashes. That might get people to fight the ever-crazier copyright laws… but only for this specific instance.

King® is an important historical figure, and of immense value to students of the 20th century. And the King family gets to take full advantage of this till 2039. It’s how copyright law works.

Meanwhile, if you still wanna read “I Have a Dream,” here’s this. It includes a link to the audio. You’re welcome.