Why MLK’s ‘Dream’ Is So Hard to Find Online

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells a news conference in Atlanta on July 27, 1964, that violence would set back the civil rights movements. He urged New York African Americans to halt violence and lawlessness before leaving for New York for a meeting with Mayor Robert Wagner and African American leaders. 
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Aug. 19, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

Ed­it­or’s Note: This story was ori­gin­ally pub­lished in Na­tion­al Journ­al on Aug. 19, 2013, dur­ing the lead up to the 50-year an­niversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton.

As Wash­ing­ton gears up to com­mem­or­ate the 50th an­niversary of Dr. Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr.’s his­tor­ic “I Have a Dream” speech later this month, one thing might be miss­ing from the cel­eb­ra­tions: the speech it­self.

A full, un­ed­ited video clip of the speech is tough­er to find than you might think, be­cause of copy­right dis­putes that date back al­most as far as the speech it­self.

“We were shocked to find that it was very dif­fi­cult to find a full copy of Dr. King’s speech on You­Tube,” said Evan Greer, a cam­paign man­ager at Fight for the Fu­ture, an In­ter­net free-speech ad­vocacy group. In Janu­ary, the group pos­ted the full-length speech on Vimeo in an act of “civil dis­obedi­ence” co­in­cid­ing with Mar­tin Luth­er King Day. The video was promptly re­moved for vi­ol­at­ing Vimeo’s terms of ser­vice, Greer said, but a ver­sion on You­Tube has man­aged to avoid de­tec­tion and re­mains up on the site, hav­ing ac­cu­mu­lated more than 80,000 views.

“When I sat down to make this video, I’m not sure I had ever seen the whole speech,” Greer said. “We thought it was in­cred­ibly im­port­ant that any young per­son be able to hop on­line and watch this speech “¦ that is as rel­ev­ant today as it was when it was writ­ten.”

Months after the Au­gust 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton, King him­self sued to pre­vent the un­au­thor­ized sale of his speech, pur­portedly in an ef­fort to con­trol pro­ceeds and use them to sup­port the civil-rights move­ment. In 1999, the King fam­ily sued CBS after the net­work pro­duced a video doc­u­ment­ary that “used, without au­thor­iz­a­tion, por­tions of “¦ King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” A di­vided Ap­pel­late Court, in re­vers­ing a lower court rul­ing, held that the speech was not a “gen­er­al pub­lic­a­tion,” des­pite its huge audi­ence and sub­sequent his­tor­ic im­port­ance. The speech in­stead qual­i­fied as a “lim­ited pub­lic­a­tion,” the court said, be­cause “dis­tri­bu­tion to the news me­dia, as op­posed to the gen­er­al pub­lic, for the pur­pose of en­abling the re­port­ing of a con­tem­por­ary news­worthy event, is only a lim­ited pub­lic­a­tion.”

The rul­ing was nar­row, and CBS and the King es­tate settled the case be­fore the lower court could re­con­sider, leav­ing the copy­right of the speech in a some­what con­fus­ing leg­al situ­ation. A CBS press re­lease dated Ju­ly 12, 2000, dis­cusses the agree­ment that al­lowed the net­work to “re­tain the right to use its foot­age of the speeches” from the march and li­cense it to oth­ers in ex­change for an un­dis­closed con­tri­bu­tion to the Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr., Cen­ter for Non­vi­ol­ent So­cial Change.

In 2009, EMI Pub­lish­ing cut a deal with the King es­tate to help en­sure that the speech was “ac­cor­ded the same pro­tec­tion and same right for com­pens­a­tion as oth­er copy­rights.” EMI was sold in 2011 to a con­sor­ti­um headed by Sony. The King Cen­ter did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The res­ult is that view­ing the whole speech on­line may re­main dif­fi­cult un­til 2038, when the cur­rent copy­right ex­pires, be­cause of laws that pro­tect in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty long after the au­thor is de­ceased.

“These ex­pir­a­tion dates are in­cred­ibly com­plic­ated and con­stantly chan­ging,” said Dav­id Sun­shine, an in­tel­lec­tu­al-prop­erty law­yer with Cozen O’Con­nor. “Con­gress al­ways moves the goal­posts on these things when lob­by­ing groups come in.”

The Copy­right Term Ex­ten­sion Act, passed in 1998, and more com­monly known as the Sonny Bono Act or Mickey Mouse Pro­tec­tion Act, did ex­actly that. Wor­ried about its ex­pir­ing copy­rights on early Mickey Mouse pro­duc­tions, the Walt Dis­ney Com­pany helped spur Con­gress to stretch the length of copy­right pro­tec­tion from the life of the au­thor plus 50 years to life plus 70 years. King was killed in 1968, which means the copy­right on his Dream speech won’t ex­pire un­til 2038.

So will King’s dream be heard the day of his an­niversary? That de­pends on where you want to view it — and how much of it you want to see. Much of what is avail­able shows only frag­ments of the speech. Some, like the His­tory Chan­nel, note that copy­right pre­vents the present­a­tion of a full ver­sion.

Net­works and oth­er news or­gan­iz­a­tions can air seg­ments of the speech un­der the doc­trine of “fair use,” be­cause they can jus­ti­fy it as sub­stan­tially news­worthy, Sun­shine said. (CBS aired short ex­cerpts this past week­end on its Sunday Morn­ing news show.) But air­ing the en­tire speech — all 17 minutes — could blur those lines.

“The less you play, the easi­er it is to ar­gue it’s fair use, gen­er­ally speak­ing,” Sun­shine said. And net­works such as CBS are prob­ably more in­clined to pay the li­cens­ing fee than to shell out hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to test the wa­ters on a fair-use claim. This cre­ates a no­tice­able di­vide between tele­vi­sion cor­por­a­tions that could af­ford to leg­ally chal­lenge the copy­right pro­tec­tions (but may not want to, be­cause they do not need to show the full speech) and oth­ers, who lack means to chal­lenge that re­stric­tion, Sun­shine said.

Greer ar­gues that block­ing people from watch­ing one of the most im­port­ant speeches in Amer­ic­an his­tory on­line in 2013 is an in­justice that King him­self wouldn’t tol­er­ate. And it could de­prive many young people of the op­por­tun­ity to learn first-hand — through watch­ing video — about a crit­ic­al mo­ment in the civil-rights move­ment.

“Most people are go­ing to turn on­line where they want to watch it and share it,” Greer said. “It’s in­cred­ibly im­port­ant for people to find it there and share it with their com­munity.”

Buy­ing a DVD of the speech re­mains an op­tion. Amazon cur­rently lists cop­ies as low as $13.41.

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