How the Martin Luther King estate controls the national hero’s image

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tags: LBJ, MLK, Selma, Ava DuVernay



The new film Selma has sparked a bitter public debate, mostly concerning the film’s representation of President Lyndon Johnson’s stance on voting rights and how much artistic license is appropriate for a biopic centering on a major historical event. Less discussed, however, is the degree to which the MLK estate’s tough stance on copyright affected the historical accuracy of the film—and has affected many other films and books before it. What is lost when a biopic cannot take full advantage of its main character’s rhetorical brilliance? And what alternatives are available for filmmakers that want to produce history, not hagiography, about MLK?

Selma director Ava DuVernay may well have taken more license than artistically necessary in the confrontational scenes between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson. But inaccuracies in other significant parts of the film were forced upon DuVernay by copyright law. The film’s numerous scenes of King delivering powerful speeches regarding civil rights all had to be paraphrased, because the MLK estate has already licensed the film rights in those speeches to DreamWorks and Warner Bros., for an MLK biopic Steven Spielberg is slated to produce.

The litigious MLK estate, controlled now by King’s descendants, has a long history of employing copyright to restrict the use of King’s speeches. The estate appears to have two objectives: maximize revenue and control King’s image. In the 1990s, the estate sued USAToday for publishing the full text of the “I Have a Dream” speech King delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, and the newspaper quickly settled by paying for a license and attorneys’ fees. The estate then sued CBS for including footage of the speech in a segment of its documentary series The 20th Century with Mike Wallace. In its defense in court, CBS argued that the speech had entered into the public domain because King had not complied with the notice and registration requirements of the Copyright Act of 1909. The trial court agreed with CBS, but an appellate court reversed and ruled in favor of the MLK estate on narrow technical grounds. (Specifically, although the speech was delivered to a live audience of several hundred thousand people and broadcast to millions more, the appellate court treated the delivery of the speech as only a limited publication of the underlying text that did not trigger the 1909 Act’s notice and registration requirements.)





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