Gagged by copy­right

Martin Luther King's sem­i­nal speech on Black rights in 1963 is still not in the pub­lic do­main be­cause of strict copy­right en­force­ment


Martin Luther King's 1963 `I have a dream' speech is still not in pub­lic do­main

Nor, per­haps, his ad­vis­ers choose AREN­DRA MODI gifts for heads of state with some thought. When the prime min­is­ter went to Wash­ing­ton in Septem­ber for bi­lat­eral talks with Barack Obama, he gave the US pres­i­dent mem­o­ra­bilia re­lated to Black rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. This in­cluded a record­ing of King’s ad­dress to our na­tion dur­ing his mo­men­tous month-long 1959 visit to In­dia and a pho­to­graph of him at Ra­jghat where he went to pay homage to his guid­ing light Ma­hatma Gandhi.

So King has been very much on my mind in re­cent weeks. A lit­tle dig­ging re­vealed that the All In­dia Ra­dio (air) record­ing was dis­cov­ered in 2009 by re­searchers look­ing for ma­te­rial to mark the 50th an­niver­sary of the civil rights leader’s visit to In­dia. But it has been im­pos­si­ble to find the full record­ing of the speech on the Web although I am told that the In­dian em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton has it and so does air. Both web­sites are not user-friendly and the search func­tion threw up no re­sults. How­ever, one can lis­ten to snip­pets on the web­site of npr, the US pub­lic broad­caster.

There is not much global in­ter­est, per­haps, in this ad­dress. What the world lis­tens to is what it knows well—the epochal “I have a dream”speech that King made in 1963, four years be­fore he was as­sas­si­nated.It’s a stir­ring speech and the soul of what the pas­tor and Black rights cham­pion ex­pected to achieve for his peo­ple. But sadly, the pub­lic speech made 51 years ago can­not still be used freely. It’s pri­vately owned by the fam­ily and un­der strict copy­right. De­liv­ered on Au­gust 28, 1963, the speech will come into the pub­lic do­main only in 2038, a full 70 years after King’s death.

The weird part is that this much-quoted speech,text, video and record­ing,is out there on the Web.How­ever,any com­mer­cial en­ter­prise,and this in­cludes news­pa­pers and TV sta­tions,has to fork out a huge fee to the fam­ily es­tate that owns the rights.Those who use it with­out per­mis­sion, such as doc­u­men­tary mak­ers, USA To­day and CBS have been taken to court for copy­right in­fringe­ment. Weirder still, the fam­ily firm has handed over the man­age­ment of King’s images and works to Bri­tish record­ing company emi Pub­lish­ing.Top flight com­pa­nies such as Mercedes-Benz and Al­ca­tel have been li­censed to use the speech in their TV com­mer­cials,clearly be­cause they could af­ford the fee. The ques­tion is how a pub­lic speech by such an im­por­tant ac­tivist be­came pri­vate prop­erty. After all, thou­sands of peo­ple had heard King speak at the Lin­coln Memo­rial, the speech had been tele­vised live and the man him­self had dis­trib­uted printed copies to the me­dia which had pub­lished it. What hap­pened is that King had, a month or so later, regis­tered his copy­right to the text when he found some com­pa­nies were profit­ing from sell­ing unau­tho­rised copies.

When cbs chal­lenged the es­tate say­ing that speech had been made be­fore King had a copy­right, the broad­caster won the case in a lower court. But judges in an ap­peals court ruled—and this is the weird­est part—that King’s de­liv­ery of the speech was a “per­for­mance” and did not con­sti­tute a “gen­eral pub­li­ca­tion”! It also held that the copies given to the me­dia amounted to limited dis­tri­bu­tion. cbs set­tled out of court. USA To­day paid the es­tate $10,000 in lawyers’ and court costs along with a $1,700 li­cens­ing fee for pub­lish­ing the full speech.

I was left won­der­ing whether Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s more stir­ring (at least, for In­di­ans) “Tryst with des­tiny” speech was a per­for­mance or a “gen­eral dis­tri­bu­tion”. Thank heavens, our copy­right laws are not com­pletely aligned with those of the US.


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