54 years later, you still have to pay to use Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

It’s one of the most famous speeches in American history, one you never forget if you ever heard it. The problem is that it isn’t easy to hear the 17-minute “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Washington Monument during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The speech is not in the public domain but is private property, owned by the King family, and anybody who wants to use it is supposed to pay for that right. For that matter, all of King’s papers and speeches are owned by family members, some of whom also operate the licensing operation through which those who want to use them must go.

While some use of the speech or parts of it can be lawful without approval — individual teachers, for example, are not challenged when they use the speech in violation of the copyright — the makers of the 2014 film “Selma” were never given permission to use King’s words or life story because they couldn’t get a license, which had been sold to two companies for a movie about King’s life that Steven Spielberg is supposedly going to make.

Historians and civil rights leaders have, over the years, expressed concern about limiting access to the speech, whose power lies not only in the words but in his delivery.

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Taylor Branch, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy of books that chronicles King’s life and the history of the civil rights movement, said a few years ago that it is harder for Americans to learn about the speech because it is not in the public domain and that he has, to no avail, talked with the King family about it. “They are making a mistake,” he said in 2013.

The King Center, which sells a DVD of the speech for $20 on its website, did not respond to phone calls and emails about the speech and licensing. Unless the family decides to put it in the public domain beforehand, it will happen in 2038, under copyright law.

There is, however, a copy of it on YouTube, and it has more than 700,000 views.

It was King himself who obtained the rights to his own speech a month after he gave it in 1963. Two companies had started selling unauthorized copies, and he sued them. Since then, his family has received an income from exercising its intellectual property rights, and has gone to court to protect its copyright.

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The King Center website says:

“To obtain proper authorization for use of Dr. King’s works and intellectual property, please contact Intellectual Properties Management (IPM), the exclusive licensor of the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. at licensing@i-p-m.com or 404-526-8968.”

Fees for licensing vary, depending on who is asking, though how much is charged and paid is unclear. MSNBC licensed the speech in 2013 so that it could air it on its 50th anniversary.

The history of the copyright is complicated, according to this 2013 story on motherboard.vice.com:

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“Because the speech was not ‘published’ in a traditional way, courts have ruled that video and audio of King’s famous oration belongs to the King family and to its rights protector, the London-based company EMI Music Publishing, which is the largest music publisher in the world. (Because of a 2011 acquisition of EMI from Citigroup, the speech is technically in the legal possession of Sony Music Publishing, the Estate of Michael Jackson, Jynwel Capital of Hong Kong, the Blackstone Group, David Geffen, and the Mubadala Development Company, which is the government of Abu Dhabi’s investment arm.)

“What that means is that as a law-abiding individual interested in watching King’s speech, you will be hard pressed to find a full version of the speech online. You can however purchase a licensed copy on DVD for $20. If you’re a law-abiding media outlet, you could be paying well into the thousands for the license, although the numbers are unclear. In lawsuits against infringers, the King family has won undisclosed sums from CBS and USA Today. When CNN, ABC, and MSNBC air the speech in full today, they will also be paying unknown sums in licensing fees to the King family, with the help of big sponsors like Bank of America.”