Why It's Difficult To Find Full Video Of King's Historic Speech

Aug 23, 2013
Originally published on August 24, 2013 12:11 pm

As thousands gather in Washington over the next week to the mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, you may be moved to look for video of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech," which he delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial during that march.

It might surprise you that it is actually quite hard to find — because while many copies have been uploaded to Internet video sites, many have also been taken down.

Why, you ask? It's all about copyright.

Dustin Volz takes on the story in the latest issue of The National Journal. He explains:

"Months after the August 1963 March on Washington, King himself sued to prevent the unauthorized sale of his speech, purportedly in an effort to control proceeds and use them to support the civil-rights movement. In 1999, the King family sued CBS after the network produced a video documentary that 'used, without authorization, portions of ... King's 'I Have a Dream' speech.' A divided Appellate Court, in reversing a lower court ruling, held that the speech was not a "general publication," despite its huge audience and subsequent historic importance. The speech instead qualified as a "limited publication," the court said, because "distribution to the news media, as opposed to the general public, for the purpose of enabling the reporting of a contemporary newsworthy event, is only a limited publication.

"The ruling was narrow, and CBS and the King estate settled the case before the lower court could reconsider, leaving the copyright of the speech in a somewhat confusing legal situation. A CBS press release dated July 12, 2000, discusses the agreement that allowed the network to 'retain the right to use its footage of the speeches' from the march and license it to others in exchange for an undisclosed contribution to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

"In 2009, EMI Publishing cut a deal with the King estate to help ensure that the speech was 'accorded the same protection and same right for compensation as other copyrights.' EMI was sold in 2011 to a consortium headed by Sony. The King Center did not respond to requests for comment."

The bottom line is that online presence of the speech is likely to be problematic until 2038, when King's copyright expires. U.S. law states that an author keeps a copyright for life plus 70 years.

All of that said, an activist organization called Fight for the Future has taken it upon itself to provide ready access to the speech. On Internet Freedom Day, the organization uploaded video of the entire 17-minute speech, which, at the moment, is still available on YouTube.

Volz, by the way, will be on tonight's edition of All Things Considered to talk about his reporting. Click here for a NPR member station near you. We'll post audio of the interview a little later today.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Next week, the nation will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and one of the most famous and important speeches in American history.


MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.

CORNISH: That is, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The speech lasted roughly 17 minutes and we would've liked to play more, a lot more. But that's where things get complicated. You see, the "I Have a Dream" speech is copyrighted. And as famous as it is, that copyright has long limited where you can find the speech, and just how much of it you can see and hear without paying for it. Dustin Volz has written about this for National Journal and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DUSTIN VOLZ: Thank you. Good to be here.

CORNISH: So who first took out the copyright for the speech and why?

VOLZ: The first person to file for copyright actually was Dr. King himself, purportedly to, you know, help raise money for the civil rights movement. Of course, unfortunately, Dr. King was assassinated five years later in 1968 and the copyright passed to his estate then.

CORNISH: So it passes to his estate and I understand that the King family, at one point, actually sues CBS because they were using parts of the speech without permission. And what happened?

VOLZ: So the King family had the copyrights and in the '90s, CBS was making a documentary and they wanted to use a substantial part of the speech as part of that documentary. And so the King estate sued, citing copyright. In 1999 an appellate court ruled that King's speech actually, as famous as it is, is a limited publication. That it was not disseminated to the public but actually disseminated to news companies that then rebroadcast it.

And so they said that the rights still belong to Dr. King and his estate because it was a limited publication, as they called it, not a general publication.

CORNISH: And that's a big deal here, right, this idea of general versus limited?

VOLZ: Yeah, that's what it really comes down to. So with general publications, they're public domain. You can use them for whatever you want. An intellectual property lawyer told me if King had actually not written down his speech, if he had just kind of talked extemporaneously, it would've been considered general. But because he wrote it down and because he then filed to protect his copyright on it, it became limited. And despite it being so famous today, it is not considered part of public domain.

CORNISH: And it gets more complicated, right, because then at one point in 2009, the King family actually cuts a deal with the music publisher EMI to protect the copyright. What happened with that deal and where does it stand now?

VOLZ: Right. So they inked a deal with EMI publishing. And EMI was actually later bought out by a consortium that included Sony. And that's kind of where it stands now. And because of that, it's extremely hard to find the video online because people are policing it. And if you do a Google search, like anything on the Internet, you dig hard enough, deep enough, you'll find it. But it's not supposed to be there and they have taken it down because of copyright.

CORNISH: We found a version of the speech in its entirety on YouTube. Now, did whoever put it there technically break the law?

VOLZ: Yes, as far as I understand. I mean, this is again a very confusing, murky legal area. But the copyright law says that the speech should not be available without the consent of the King estate. And so if the King estate did not give the license for someone to post it online, then it's violating copyright. The Internet advocacy group Fight For the Future actually posted the speech in its entirety to commemorate Martin Luther King Day this January.

And it was taken off of Vimeo because it violated their terms of service, which said you cannot post something that is against the law. They were able to post it on YouTube. And for whatever reason, months later, YouTube has not taken it down yet.

CORNISH: A lot of people may say, look you can buy the speech, right, for 13 bucks. You can buy - I think you found it on Amazon. I mean, you can pay for it. So why should people be able to get it for free?

VOLZ: Yeah, well, the lowest price I found was $13.41 on Amazon. But there are some freedom of speech advocates, some Internet rights advocates who say, you know, this is something that is so important, it was a crucial moment for the civil rights movement. It needs to be in public domain. And with the 50th anniversary coming up, people might turn to the Internet to view the entire speech and they might have trouble finding it.

CORNISH: Dustin Volz. He writes for National Journal. Thank you so much for coming in.

VOLZ: Thanks, I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.