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King’s 'Dream' speech garners copyright protection

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    NMU         ELEVENTH CIRCUIT         Copyrights & Trademarks         Nov 22, 1999    

King’s ‘Dream’ speech garners copyright protection

  • The estate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can proceed with its copyright claim against CBS based on a ruling that public deliverance of the speech did not amount to a waiver of the copyright.

A three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) in early November reversed a lower court finding and held that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not waive his copyright in his “I Have a Dream” speech by publicly delivering it.

The result of the case is that King’s estate can proceed with its copyright infringement lawsuit against CBS, which had used without permission approximately 60 percent of the speech in “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington,” a segment of its “The 20th Century with Mike Wallace” documentary series.

The court held that under the 1909 copyright law — which applied to this case because the 1976 copyright law was enacted after King’s 1963 speech — the public nature of the speech and the march organizers’ desire to draw extensive media attention to the speech did not necessarily mean that King had intended to make his speech available to members of the public without regard to who they were or what they intended to do with it. The court also noted that even though King’s speech was covered live by members of the media and reported on heavily, that did not necessarily mean King waived his ability to copyright his speech, which he did approximately one month after giving it.

The opinion does not address a media outlet’s ability to fairly use portions of a speech in a news report without the permission of the copyright holder.

Because the trial court had dismissed the case before trial, the appellate court noted that CBS could still attempt to show the trial court additional evidence that King’s actions in making the speech waived his ability to copyright it later.

All three judges agreed with the result, although only two joined the majority opinion. A third judge wrote separately to argue that the trial court had erred by not recognizing that under the 1909 copyright law the public performance of a speech would never waive the ability to copyright it without the distribution of tangible copies of the speech.

(Estate of King v. CBS; Media Counsel: Floyd Abrahms, New York City)

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