Harry Belafonte Sues Martin Luther King Jr.'s Heirs In Yet Another Fight Over 'Ownership' Of His Words

from the sued-at-last,-sued-at-least... dept

We’ve covered how Martin Luther King Jr.’s heirs have a long and unfortunate history of being over-aggressive enforcers of the intellectual property of their father — not for the good of society and civil rights, but rather for revenue maximization. At times it’s reached ridiculous levels, and the latest is that the famed singer Harry Belafonte is now suing MLK’s heirs after they’ve spent years blocking his attempt to sell (for charity) some documents that Belafonte received from King and King’s wife. King’s heirs argue that Belafonte got these documents through questionable means and they belong to the estate. The details suggest, yet again, that this is just yet another fight where the King heirs are so focused on ownership that they don’t seem to care about anything else.

Mr. Belafonte, who often supported the King family financially during the civil rights struggle, said the dispute pains him. He said in his view, Dr. King’s children had drifted away from their father’s values. “The papers are symbolic,” he said. “It’s really about what happened to the children, and I feel that somewhere, in this one area, I really failed Martin.”

Of course, what isn’t clearly delineated in the NYT article about all this is the difference between ownership of the documents and the holding the copyright on the contents. Late in the article, a lawyer claims it’s about the copyright:

Clarence B. Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer and close friend, said the King family had every right to protect its copyright.

However, it doesn’t seem like this fight has anything to do with copyright at all. After all, the copyright doesn’t change hands with the letter (and the King estate almost certainly doesn’t hold the copyright in the letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Mrs. King, which is included in the documents they’re fighting over). Furthermore, even if Belafonte had the documents that included works that were potentially covered by copyright for King, the copyright would still remain with the King estate, but Belafonte could still sell the physical documents under the first sale doctrine.

That said, given how aggressive the King estate has been over copyright as well as physical ownership of documents (they went after Boston University to get back a trove of documents King had directly donated to the school), it shows yet again how copyright is a tool that is used all too often for control, rather than for “the progress of science” as prescribed by the Constitution.

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Comments on “Harry Belafonte Sues Martin Luther King Jr.'s Heirs In Yet Another Fight Over 'Ownership' Of His Words”

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Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

King Estate Debauchers

Dear King Descendants

I have some really bad news for you. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are already in my head. I know you think you own them, but they are in my head. I am not the only one who has your fathers words in their head. There are likely millions who have his words in their heads.

Come and get them.


All of us who respect culture over money

PS Good luck with that!

kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

I think somebody forget to point the King heirs/estate to the recent Supreme Court decision (March 2013) that protects the resale rights.

Thai citizen Supap Kirtsaeng appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to protect his rights when textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons tried to use copyright law to halt Kirtsaeng.

The King heirs are trying to use copyright law in order to acquire the physical ownership of the documents.

Vincent Clement (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Most things will not get the attention of the public because most things have marginal impact on their daily lives. The American people have been told that they have been spied upon for years, yet there are no major demonstrations, no public-wide calls for immediate changes to how government works. Nothing. Nada.

Congress? It’s easier to the get the attention of a cat than Congress.

roarshock44 says:

most bothersome thing to me is the thought there may actually be an afterlife.? if so, and if those in the afterlife can follow what goes on here, i don’t like the thought of dr king following this.

if, unlike him, i think all that is hogwash, i guess i don’t too much care, except it is pretty unseemly and demeans the good man’s name while troubling some good people who don’t deserve it.

Martin Luther King Jr. says:

I have a dream

I had a bad dream that my children will make a profit from my words.
I had a bad dream that men will be judged by the contents of their bank accounts not by the content of their character.

I have a dream that one day my children will read my speeches and live by the values I sought to teach this great nation so they can free their souls from the devils grasp that is fed by the deadly sin of greed.

IP Lawyer says:

First Sale Doctrine

17 USC 109 obviates this entire dispute. This is completely within the bounds of first sale doctrine, and, frankly, the King family has no argument that holds water, in my estimation.

There is always the possibility I’m wrong, but I’d argue first sale in any follow-up dispute about this, and, the strong odds are that a judge would agree with me in a pre-trial motion to dismiss.

Shaun Snapp says:

Re: Plagiarized Work

Well, one reason is that blacks are not held accountable for plagiarism. So MLK was a serial plagiarizer, but his family seeks to enforce copyright to a ridiculous degree. HIs family enforces copyright on MLK’s stolen I Have a Dream Speech. It’s not just that his family is black, but their enforcement of copyright in ridiculous ways. So when blacks are caught plagiarizing or stealing other people’s work, they claim they come from an “oral tradition” and can’t be held accountable for plagiarism. However, when they want to make money on something they push copyrights enforcement to ludicrous levels. So it is black hypocrisy that is so shocking.

Arioch (profile) says:

Copyright Stupidity

When MLK delivered his speeches, I am sure that it is beyond doubt that he wanted as may people as possible to hear what he had to say, to quote him, and build upon the foundations that he laid.

Somehow I doubt that he would say “you must pay to use my words”

Shame on those that seek to profit from this Icon of the modern world

BernardoVerda says:

Re: Copyright Stupidity

Can some one explain to me, how historical speeches (a.k.a. “news”) and events can be locked up behind copyright?

I’ve been wondering about this ever since that television advert based on King’s famous, downright iconic “I have a dream” speech to a big crowd, in front of news cameras, and biographers and documentary-film makers being held for ransom by the King estate– how can a historical event and historical record like this be controlled by copyright holders / “IP owners”?.

Allowing copyright to be applied this way seems un-sane, at the least.

Ivan says:

A case-study I have read about getting succeeded by the fight against ownership at Dissertation Bliss – http://dissertationtbliss.co.uk/ – Water disputes: in the oct. 15 enterprise phase, an article about criminal fights over water structures blanketed a quote from a california court docket of appeal decision about monopolists being unpopular and king george iii’s “chokehold” on government. A next court docket order left the judgment inside the case regarding golden kingdom water co. And the casitas municipal water district intact however deleted the language quoted.

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