The Great Martin Luther King Copyright Conundrum

The Great Martin Luther King Copyright Conundrum

Believe it or not, to legally watch that famous Martin Luther King "I Have a Dream" speech -- arguably one of the most hallowed moments in American history -- costs $10 thanks to the twisted state of United States copyright law. In related news, happy Martin Luther King Day!

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The news of how MLK's most famous moment costs money to watch is not a new one. But given the dramatic rise of the issue of digital rights, thanks largely in part to the dramatic controversy surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the story seems unusually prescient this year. Alex Pasternack, the editor of Vice's tech site, Motherboard, blogged about the issue on a few months back:

If you weren’t alive to witness Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall 48 years ago this week, you might try to switch on the old YouTube and dial it up. But you won’t find it there or anywhere else; rights to its usage remain with King and his family. …

At the family’s Web site, videotapes and audiotapes of the speech can be purchased for $10 a piece. The family controls the copyright of the speech for 70 years after King’s death, in 2038.

We know what you're thinking: why the heck do we have to pay to watch American history? If the Smithsonian National Museum of American History is free -- seriously, next time you're in DC swing by and check out the full size replica of Julia Childs's kitchen -- why on Earth would we have to pay $10 to watch Martin Luther King change the course of American history?

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It's not the Martin Luther King estate's fault, necessarily. As we suggested in the lede, American copyright law is in a silly state. Not only was it written well before the Internet existed, U.S. copyright law was written in another century. The idea that drives copyright law, legal experts have said, is a good one. Intellectual property is difficult to protect (read: easy to steal) and the attempt to regulate it by punishing thieves makes good sense. However, there's a case that folks would at place like Creative Commons and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that copyright law is intensely behind-the-times. This is partially why the debate against SOPA has become so muddled with controversy. Lawmakers admit that they don't understand how the Internet works, and it's a becoming a pretty big problem. At the very least -- and as Barack Obama's recent statements about SOPA suggest -- it's becoming an issue in the 2012 Elections.  Pasternack's post itself is timely not only because of Obama's recent statements but also because it's Martin Luther King Day. And Martin Luther King Jr. as well as his "I Have a Dream" speech is awesome.

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Not to get all dramatic about it or anything, but it seems pretty unbelievable that you'd have to pay to watch MLK's most memorable moment. As the recent controversy around the suggestive wording on a statue honoring the civil rights leader suggest, his legacy can be a controversial one. There is, however, no discernable justification for why it should be expensive.

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Update (8:32): Motherboard's Pasternack did an update on the story after we published this post on Monday. He's reporting new details about how the giant British EMI record company (not to be confused with the Nashville-based BMI record company) actually now owns the rights to the speech. Long story short, the video still costs money to buy legally, and U.S. copyright law is still in a silly state.