The “I Have A Dream” Speech Ethics Train Wreck

Dr. King's familiy says this was a "performance" not a speech. Funny: I thought he was just speaking the truth. I guess I was dreaming.

Take Martin Luther King Day, turn right at the “Stopping Online Piracy Act” (SOPA/ PIPA) protests, and you get to the ridiculous fact that you are breaking the law anytime you circulate a recording or video of the Martin Luther King’s immortal “I Have A Dream” speech.

Through a baroque combination of expediency, legal maneuvers, luck and greed, this vital part of American thought, rhetoric, culture and history is restricted by the copyright laws, and will not be in the public domain until 2037, or more than 70 years after King’s words were spoken in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Now, under SOPA/PIPA, if it passes, any educational website that includes a video of the King Video could be taken down by the Feds, but that’s a side issue. I am no expert on the bill, but you can brief yourself on what all the fuss is about here, here, here, and here, the bill itself. Similarly, if I tried to explain the legal process by which courts agreed that a critical chapter in American history should be unavailable to Americans unless they pay a fee, it would 1) bore you stiff, 2) confuse you, and 3) probably be wrong. So I recommend this post by Alex Pasternak over at Motherboard, who does a great job laying out the whole, tortuous, tragic story.

I’ll concentrate on the ethics train wreck feature, of which the basic elements are these:

1. Shortly after he gave the speech in 1963, King sued to stop unauthorized recordings of the speech from being marketed and sold by others. Now, I think a speech given in public, for free, on the grounds of a national monument, should be in the public domain from the second it is delivered, and usually it is. But King saw a product that he could use to finance his civil rights crusade, and I can’t fault him for that—his words, his voice, his crusade. In 1963, this was an easy verdict, a knock-out by utilitarianism with King the winner.

2. But the King family decided it should hold on to the rights to the speech, and somehow persuaded a judge in Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc. (1999)  that the speech was a performance distributed to the news media and not the public, and thus not in the public domain. The decision gave the King estate the right to claim the copyright, to charge anyone that wanted to use or broadcast  the speech,and to sue anyone for big bucks who didn’t pay first.

3. Then, two years ago, the King family decided to cash in, and sold part of the copyright to EMI, the international publishing giant. It’s not even an American company; American history is only a product to them.

And thus we have to pay for the “I Have a Dream” speech, and with it now firmly in the clutches of EMI, there will be no change.

The ethics verdict is obvious and clear: the ethics villain here isn’t King, and isn’t even EMI. It is Dr. King’s heirs. King had a good reason, in 1963, to try to control his speech—in 1963, he had no way of knowing that it would become literally sacred historical text, right up with the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. He had no idea that he was going to become a martyr, a symbol, or an American hero honored with his own holiday, either. His family, however, does know these things, and unlike Dr. King, their claim to ownership of his words is legal and accidental, but certainly not fair, reasonable or ethical. King’s speech belongs to American history, the people of the United States, and American culture, and for the King family to do anything but allow full access can only be regarded as irresponsible, unfair, greedy and wrong.

Yes, giving up the copyright would have meant giving up some opportunities for profit. Ethical conduct often means that; that’s when courage and values become indispensable. I won’t play the game of presuming what Dr. King “would have wanted”; who knows, maybe he would have wanted his family to have the speech as its cash cow for the Kings, and the rest of us be damned. But what he should have wanted, and what most of his admirers believe he would have wanted, would be for his speech, and his delivery of it, to reach as many hearts and minds as possible for as long as possible, in schools, in homes, on TV and on the internet. Dr. King’s mission was to change America and its culture, not to make money. His family’s actions in the instance have been diametrically opposed to that. They had some small argument on their own behalf until they sold the rights to Dr. King’s speech to EMI. Then there was no doubt: it was all about the money. It was always about the money.

The ethical thing for the King family to do, if they cared about civil rights and the legacy of  Martin Luther King  ( who was, after all,  the only reason anyone knew who the Kings were or cared) as much as they claimed to, would have been to surrender the copyright to the speech, and have Dr. King join Lincoln, Jefferson JFK, Tom Payne, and many others in the public domain, where the words that define the United States belong. Instead, they sold it for top dollar, so that a foreign corporation, not the American public, decides who will see it and how it can be used.

As we have seen before and will see again, great people do not always have great families.

7 thoughts on “The “I Have A Dream” Speech Ethics Train Wreck

  1. This was great. You covered two of my favourite topics; copyright and internet censorship. And King thrown in for good measure. 🙂

  2. I generally agree with you, but I don’t understand your complaint about selling it to a foreign corporation as opposed to an American one. Would you feel more comfortable if, say, News Corporation, owned the speech? Corporations, no matter where they are headquartered, are often international in scope, with shareholders from all over the world and directors and officers of many nationalities.

    • You’re right, Eric, it’s irrational. Selling it to one corporation, American or not, is as bad as sending it to any other. EMI just seemed more obviously venal than, say, BET, or the History Channel.

      • I see your point. BET or the History Channel shouldn’t own “I have a dream” but they would probably do better things with it (i.e. use it to educate the public) than a large media conglomerate, whether American or foreign. This assumes, of course, that the History Channel would not use the speech to imply that Dr. King was inspired by extraterrestrials.

  3. Pingback: The “I Have A Dream” Speech Ethics Train Wreck | Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

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