GEORGIA–The public owns Dr. Martin L. King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, not his estate, a federal District Court in Atlanta ruled in late July.
Holding that the speech “was made available to members of the public at large without regard to who they were or what they proposed to do with it,” Judge William O’Kelley granted CBS’ motion for summary judgment in a case brought by King’s estate. The estate claimed that the television network infringed upon its copyright on the speech by producing a documentary series for the cable network A & E which included a substantial portion of the speech.
CBS had claimed that King had been divested of his copyright in the speech during the civil rights “March on Washington” due to the circumstances surrounding its delivery. CBS argued that because King made the speech to a crowd of more than 200,000 people, broadcast live by the three major networks, reprinted in its entirety in the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition’s newsletter and made available to the press before it was delivered, it had been made available to the public and any copyright in it was effectively surrendered.
Additionally, CBS argued that if the “I Have a Dream” speech was not in the public domain, the fair use exception to copyright law precluded any finding of an infringement because the dissemination of the speech as an educational tool contributes to the public welfare.
In its counter-motion, the King estate contended that King never intended to relinquish the copyright. It noted that King registered the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office within a month after the speech was given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The estate argued that CBS made an enormous amount of money from the documentary, which alone should negate its “fair use” defense.
Because it found that the speech was in the public domain, the federal District Court declined to decide the fair use issue. (Estate of Dr. King v. CBS, Inc.; Media Counsel: Floyd Abrams, New York City)