Dreams and Copyrights

Yesterday gave us rare opportunity to see the glory of the delivery of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, as many in the world commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.

Commentary about the March and the speech, their context and their legacy abounded this week. But many also heard the entirety of Dr. King’s speech, delivered in his own voice. The copyright in the speech is protected and strictly enforced, now by his estate.

Some media outlets secured the required permissions for wide reproduction of the speech or its broadcast. Licence fees for reproduction of the speech fund a non-profit foundation and invite community service in the spirit of Dr. King.

The speech took an interesting path to copyright protection: Copyright was registered shortly after application about a month after the speech, enforced via litigation, and later challenged via a defence to another infringement suit. The defence centred on the suggestion copyright was forfeited by a failure to deliver a then-mandated notice for certain kinds of publication. The rejection of this argument turned on the character of publication of the speech and the applicaton of notice requirements under US copyright law at the time. The ultimate conclusion was that the defendant had not established that Dr. King had forfeited his copyright.

A public speech by the President, on the other hand, is freely available for reproduction.


  1. Its easy to complain about overly restrictive copyright, but without the King family’s vigilance, I’m pretty sure the speech would have been used to sell everything from soap to cars by now.

  2. See James Boyle, “EM(I) Has a Dream”

  3. Here’s the link

  4. Thanks, Mike and Ariel.

    I’m not complaining and I imagine if I’d created that speech I’d too want to retain copyright in it. When watching a broadcast of it on Wednesday I wondered if its impact and power, as felt in our house at least, would have been the same had the speech been widely available and possibly diluted by questionable uses (as Mike points out). Still, my kids were spellbound and I’m glad they had this opportunity to see it.

    I guess a question is how a copyright-holder should choose to license it—in what format, to whom and for what purpose. That’s up to the owner of the copyright. I understand from one of the articles linked above I could have chosen to acquire a copy for myself for a reasonable price and those funds would have gone to good works. One of the articles also raises the question of fair use—that the bounds of this hasn’t been explored in this case.

    On the other hand, in the James Boyle article that Ariel notes, Prof. Boyle gives some rather disheartening examples of imagined—and actual—licensed uses. (Thanks, Ariel. I’m glad I’ve never seen any of those.)

    In the video clip I linked, Prof. Fisher raises (and, for his students, refrains from answering) the question of what policy issues copyright protection for (non-government) political speeches might raise. One policy issue might be, assuming copyright applies , what should happen to the copyright in the event of untimely death.

  5. The fact that copyright is used to deliberately reduce the impact of a cultural work is troublesome. The ‘I have a dream’ speech is part of our cultural heritage, and should be as freely available as Shakespeare. The power of Dr. Kings words shouldn’t be reserved for those with the money and political power to satisfy a particular Non-Profit, no matter how well intentioned.