Why I Believe Martin Luther King’s Words Should Be In The Public Domain

As anyone with small children knows, it’s really hard to get to the movies. Our daughter Hannah is only four months old, which means her mom and I aren’t comfortable hiring babysitters yet (we aren’t close enough to the grandparents for them to just pop over for a couple hours), and Hannah is just vocal enough to be a total liability in a movie theater. As a result, I’ve seen far fewer of this year’s Oscar contenders than usual. To date, I’ve only seen three: Gone GirlWhiplash, and Foxcatcher. The rest will have to wait until they become available On Demand. Boyhood and Inherent Vice are must-sees, but for me, Selma is the one I want to see most urgently, especially in light of what's been going on in Ferguson and New York.

In truth, taking care of an infant means that I didn’t know much about the film until just a few weeks ago. I didn’t know the long and troubled history of the film. I didn’t know that it was directed by an African-American woman - Ava DuVernay - now a top contender for the Best Director statue. And I didn’t know that most of the speeches given by Dr. King in the film weren't the ones he gave in real life. They were rewritten for the film because the real speeches are owned by the King estate and had already been licensed to Dreamworks for a film Steven Spielberg may or may not make.

When asked by the Washington Post about rewriting Dr. King’s speeches, DuVernay said:

“We never even asked [the King family], because we knew those rights are already gone, they’re with Spielberg, and secondly we found a way to do it where we didn’t have to ask for permission, because with those rights came a certain collaboration."

I love that. It’s such an ingenious way to work around a legal impossibility and it highlights the collaborative efforts required in filmmaking. I also hate that it was necessary because I think Martin Luther King’s speeches should all be publicly accessible.

A year and a half ago I wrote a post complaining about the fact that a large company (Sony) was able to own the copyright to, and therefore profit from, video of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. It’s the reason you’ve probably never seen the speech in full... because no one wants to pay to license it and no one wants to get sued for showing it. I think it's ethically wrong that such a thing could be allowed. We’re not talking about some words some moderately famous guy said once. We’re talking about Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose words and actions are as important to the foundation and shaping of this country as George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's. Nearly all of the social progress made in the last 50 years is directly traceable back to him. 

But under current copyright law, Dr. King’s words are treated no differently than a Pitbull/Kesha song. I understand that the King family only wants to protect their patriarch’s legacy, but I think Dr. King’s words are too historically significant to be treated like everything else. I argued back then that copyright law should be reformed to create special exemptions allowing works of historic importance - like the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation- to be placed in the public domain so that all Americans could benefit from them. No one should be able to say, "pay me enough and you can have access to this historically important artifact." 

I still stand by that sentiment, but truthfully, I haven’t really thought through all the kinks in making a change like that to current policy. How do you implement it? What qualifies as historically significant? Who makes that determination and what factors do they consider? More importantly, if the speeches enter the public domain and a new movie can use them verbatim (thus profiting directly from the speeches), is that any better than the current system? If the movie is respectful of Dr. King and the struggle he led, as Selma appears to be, does that even matter? 

It’s easier to leave the system as it is, but that seems wrong to me. Dr. King’s words should belong to the country at large and you shouldn’t have had to see him speak in person to learn from their example.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA