Don't Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater: Changing Laws, The "I Have A Dream" Speech, And Copyright Policy

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This Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. If you're like me, then you've probably seen snippets of that speech a hundred times, but never seen the full unedited version. That's because the speech is protected under copyright law until 2038, and anyone who copies, distributes, shares, or posts a video of the speech online will be violating copyright law and will legally owe restitution to the video's owner... Sony.* [Like when Sony ordered advocacy group Fight For The Future to remove the video from its website.]

Am I the only who thinks this is terrible? What kind of policy allows a major corporation to sue someone who wants to share with others THE ICONIC CIVIL RIGHTS MOMENT OF OUR TIME? Who is this policy protecting?

You may have noticed that I'm pretty vocal when I think changes should be made to U.S. policy, specifically copyright law. As a result, I've been accused several times of pursuing a "throw out the baby with the bathwater" agenda. But that's not really accurate since I've never called for scrapping laws wholesale. I have, on the other hand, advocated for revising laws that don't work as intended. I personally see advocating for better and smarter laws as my duty, not just as a lawyer, but as an American citizen (which, not so ironically, was kind of the point of Dr. King's speech).

And what's wrong with supporting change anyway? Not to be overly dramatic here, but America was founded on this whole idea of "it's not working out, so let's do something better." We went to war with England because we didn't like the way they governed us. We constructed a republican system of government that permits us to remove and replace politicians we don't like. We gave Congress the power to revise, update, and repeal laws because we recognized that people are imperfect and they will pass imperfect laws. When a law doesn't achieve its goal, it should absolutely be amended. The U.S. Copyright Act alone has been amended at least 10 times since 1790.

I keep saying it, but it bears repeating: copyright law wasn't created solely for the purpose of rewarding the artist. It was also designed to foster originality and ingenuity for the betterment of society (the founding fathers didn't measure capitalist success purely through personal wealth. Community prosperity was also a driving factor) and to shield artists from theft. It wasn't intended to be used as a weapon to attack others. Which is why the problem isn't that Sony owns the copyright to Dr. King's speech; the problem is what it can do to harm individuals who wish to share it. Simply put, Sony has the muscle and will to litigate against anyone who posts the video, regardless of the intent of the individual or their ability to fight back. And I don't think that's right.

In that spirit, here are two ideas that I think will be effective in revamping copyright law to better serve the American people.

  1. Shorten the term limits on copyrights. Yeah, I've talked about this a lot. That just shows you how much I care about this issue. Copyright law was not designed to allow copyright owners to make money off a work in perpetuity. In fact, under the Copyright Act of 1790, copyright terms were set by the founders for a mere 14 years, specifically to prevent perpetual ownership. By shortening copyright terms, major corporate copyright owners such as Sony won't be able to bully individuals when they share something as innocuous and educational as Dr. King's speech. You can read a more complete take on that here.
  2. Create exemptions in our copyright laws for works that hold special historical significance. The "I Have A Dream" speech literally changed lives and shaped events in the 20th Century. Yet under our current copyright law, it's treated like every other work of artistic expression. A work of such historic stature shouldn't be owned by any one entity. It belongs to all Americans in the same way the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation do and it should be available to everyone, free of charge.

Change is in our national DNA. History has borne that out repeatedly, so why fight it? Dr. King believed that. Who are we to assume differently?

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* Dr. King himself owned the copyright and even sued to prevent unlawful reproductions of the speech so that he could distribute profits from it to civil rights causes. After his death, the copyright passed to his family, who sold the copyright to EMI in 2009. EMI was purchased by Sony in 2011.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA