Why MLK's Family Sues People Over 'the Dream'

To protect its copyright, which lasts until 2039
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 19, 2015 3:55 PM CST
Why MLK's Estate Files Lawsuits Over 'the Dream'
In this Aug. 28, 1963 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington.    (AP Photo/File)

The new film Selma avoided quoting Martin Luther King's civil-rights speeches because his family owns the copyrights and has sued over them—and it's all perfectly legal, Politico reports. The MLK estate has successfully sued USA Today, CBS News, and the Emmy-winning documentary series Eyes on the Prize, keeping it out of circulation for years. The Kings also raked in $700,000 over the MLK Memorial in Washington, DC, and have licensed King's speeches for ads by Apple, Mercedes, Chevrolet, and Alcatel. "We never even asked" for the rights, Selma director Ava DuVernay tells the Washington Post. She knew DreamworksSKG owns them for a future Steven Spielberg film, and that "with those rights came a certain collaboration"—ie, estate influence over King's portrayal.

Why is it legal? Because King was a private citizen, not a government official, so his speeches and writings were his and passed onto his estate. What's more, Congress has extended copyright protection to the author's life plus 70 years (matching international standards), so MLK's work will become public domain on Jan. 1, 2039. The family has mostly kept quiet about all this, USA Today reports, but one of King's sons, Dexter, has written that "people don't want us, as the heirs, the estate, to benefit ... or for my family to be in any way comfortable." Yet the estate does have limits: It initially demanded $20,000 from Clarence Jones, King's personal attorney and speechwriter, for including the "I Have a Dream" speech in a book—but Jones published anyway, and the estate backed off, the National Review reports. (More Martin Luther King Jr. stories.)

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