Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech 50 years ago acted as a catalyst for the civil rights movement in the United States, a movement which, in turn, went on to change the everyday lives of many people. His words have been repeated and quoted for decades, hailed as a masterpiece of oratory and a landmark in the history of human rights. But, perhaps rather surprisingly, his words are not exactly public property. If you want to relive King’s speech, while the full text version can be found easily on the internet, no video is available for free online; you will instead have to pay $20 for the DVD.
Today the publishing company EMI is the administrator for the copyright, after a deal was made with the King family in 2009. EMI have fought hard to make sure the full recording is not available for free to the public and those copies that have gone undetected on user-generated sites are usually of poor quality.
The copyright debate dates back to 1963 when King sued Mister Maestro and Twentieth Century Fox Records for the unauthorised distribution of his speech. The decision was an apparent attempt to direct proceeds to his civil-rights movement.
In 1999 a judge in the court case Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc declared the speech had been made primarily for news media and not for the public, giving it a “limited” and not “public” classification. The controversial decision was followed by a quick settlement offer which allowed the CBS network to use the footage in return for an undisclosed sum to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Over the years the legal battle has rumbled on. In 2001 telecommunications company Alcatel licensed a clip of the speech from the King family for use in one of its adverts. The Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Julian Bond, said at the time: “When I saw that on TV, I could not believe I was seeing what I saw”. Rev. Joseph Lowry, who also worked with King, said: “If Martin were alive, he and I would be meeting with Alcatel right now, saying, ‘How many blacks and women are on your board?’”
Some news organizations and channels are allowed to air portions of the speech under a “fair use” policy if it can be substantiated as newsworthy. But the full video may remain difficult to find until 2038 when the copyright expires.
Evan Greer, a campaign leader for Fight for the Future, a non-profit group advocating digital rights, said it could deprive young people of the chance to witness a defining historical moment: “Most people are going to turn online where they want to watch it and share it,” Greer said. “It’s incredibly important for people to find it there and share it with their community.”
Have King’s dreams become a reality?
So fifty years on and several copyright battles later, has King’s inspiring ‘dream’ speech become a reality? According to a new study by the Pew Research Center in Washington, Americans feel a lot more needs to be done before people are no longer judged by the colour of their skin.
The survey of white and black Americans as well as people of Hispanic decent, found that 49 percent of people felt “a lot more” needed to be done to achieve the society that King envisioned in his 1963 speech. However, 73 percent of black respondents and 81 percent of white respondents also claimed that the two races get on “very well” or “pretty well”.
During King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial in Washington, he spoke of the “island of poverty” that black people faced. The Pew study found that the economic gulf between black and white people has barely changed in that time. In some factors, such as high school completion and life expectancy, the gap between the two has narrowed but in other examples, such as household wealth and income, the gaps have actually widened.
The research also found that since the 1950s the number of unemployed black Americans has consistently remained double that of whites. There was also a bleak picture painted of the justice system, with seven in ten African Americans and one-third of whites agreeing that black people are treated unfairly by the police.