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The Martin Luther King Speeches: Why Can't We Copy Them?

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It is my belief that many, many people and organizations are continuously making false and fraudulent claims of copyright on intellectual property which is either (1) subject to prior copyright by another person or organization, or (2) already in the Public Domain.


Perhaps the most common such false and fraudulent claims, in my opinion, occur when daily newspapers routinely claim copyright to everything in the paper and when Internet websites routinely claim copyright to everything on the website, even when some of the content is clearly in the Public Domain or clearly subject to prior copyright by someone else.

Now, it is totally understandable why these newspapers and websites desire to make these broad and sweeping copyright claims: because they want to include every bit of material on which they have a legitimate claim of copyright. So they just say, "We claim copyright on everything here," and thereby cover that portion of the total content to which they do have a legitimate claim. This practice seems to be very efficient and desirable, from their point of view.

"Efficient and desirable," perhaps, but illegal as I read the Law.

(c) Fraudulent Copyright Notice. - Any person who, with
fraudulent intent, places on any article a notice of copyright or
words of the same purport that such person knows to be false, or
who, with fraudulent intent, publicly distributes or imports for
public distribution any article bearing such notice or words that
such person knows to be false, shall be fined not more than $2,500.

Source: United States Code 17-506(c), as shown at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com

"Fraud" is usually defined as, "A deception deliberately practiced in order to secure unfair or unlawful gain," or something like that.(Source: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=fraud+definition&btng=google+search


The "unfair or unlawful gain" is that they claim the right to impose license fees on intellectual property which they do not own.

In my opinion, the fraud could be eliminated by simply adding the following words to the copyright notice: "Portions may be subject to prior copyright or may be in the Public Domain."

There may very well be several different kinds of damage to me (and other people) caused by such false claims of copyright. But the kind of damage I am most interested in correcting is the damage caused to me by being deprived of my "free use" of material which is already in the Public Domain.

There is a particular legal question which concerns me at this moment, and that is the copyright status of the major public speeches of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday (Feb 25, 2006) I was watching the "State Of The Black Union" on C-Span, and one of the speakers said that we should get a copy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "speech at the Memphis firehouse." So this morning I tried to figure out what that was, and where I could get it. It seems to be the "I've Been To The Mountaintop" speech, which I quickly found on the Internet. But to my dismay, I found a license notice on this speech, indicating to me that I couldn't copy it onto my website without getting some kind of permission from an organization. I had expected that Dr. King's various books would have been copyrighted, but I thought his Public speeches should be in the Public Domain, since he had delivered them to the Public and permitted them to be printed in the press, all without claiming any copyright. To me, this would make them Public Domain, as he had clearly made them available to the Public without restriction.

But as I now understand it, the estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. claims copyright on most of his speeches, and licenses these speeches, requiring a notice such as this: "License granted by Intellectual Properties Management, Atlanta, GA as exclusive Licensor of the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr." before anyone can use these materials.

It is my opinion that most of these public speeches (perhaps all of them) did pass into the Public Domain at the moment of their Pubic utterance by Dr. King, according to the Copyright Laws in effect at that time (prior to the 1976 revision). And I believe that Dr. King clearly desired his words to have the widest distribution and the greatest possible effect, and that he was not seeking any form of copyright protection or other restrictions at that time. Further, I believe that all members of the Public (such as myself) have a Constitutional right of "free use" of all intellectual property which is in the Public Domain. Further, I believe that neither Congress nor the Courts can limit this right of "free use" by any retroactive legislation or decision which which purports to restrict the free use of intellectual property which has already passed into the Public Domain.

For these reasons shown above and for other reasons not yet documented, it is my belief that I and all other people are legally entitled to the "free use" of the "underlying text" of most (perhaps all) of the speeches delivered in public by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., specifically including the speech known as "I See The Promised Land" ("I've been to the mountain top"), as delivered in public at Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968.

I am aware that there was a case involving CBS and the King estate regarding the "I Have A Dream" speech. The District Court held that the Speech was Public Domain, but the Appeals Court reversed that decision. In my opinion, the District Court was correct and the Appeals Court was in error, by not recognizing the differences between different kinds of performance; and also by not properly considering the Public Interest of having full and unfettered access to major documents of Public importance. Therefore I do not think this decision is applicable to the present case. However, I could be wrong. So at this time I have not yet copied this speech to my websites.

On my websites, everything I write for the Internet is Public Domain, and I try to minimize the amount of copyrighted material, even where specific permission has been granted to me (as in the case of the RSV and N.A.S.B. Bibles.) I prefer Public Domain in everything, and I desire to have several of the MLK speeches on my websites as Public Domain.

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www.LoveAllPeople.org

Rev. Bill McGinnis is an Internet Christian minister, writer and publisher. He is Director of LoveAllPeople.org, a small private think tank in Alexandria, Virginia, and all of its related websites, including (more...)
 

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The Martin Luther King Speeches: Why Can't We Copy Them?

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