Tarnishing The History Of Martin Luther King Jr.: Copyright Enforcement Edition
from the here-we-go-again dept
It is no secret that the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. have a long and unfortuate history of trying to lock up or profit from the use of his stirring words and speeches. We’ve talked about this issue going back nearly a decade and it pops up over and over again. By now you’ve probably heard that the car brand Dodge (owned by Chrysler) used a recording of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech in a controversial Super Bowl ad on Sunday. It kicked up quite a lot of controversy — even though his speeches have been used to sell other things in the past, including both cars and mobile phones.
King’s own heirs have been at war with each other and close friends in the past few years, suing each other as they each try to claim ownership over rights that they don’t want others to have. Following the backlash around the Super Bowl ad, the King Center tried to distance itself from the ad, saying that they have nothing to do with approving such licensing deals:
Neither @TheKingCenter nor @BerniceKing is the entity that approves the use of #MLK?s words or imagery for use in merchandise, entertainment (movies, music, artwork, etc) or advertisement, including tonight?s @Dodge #SuperBowl?commercial.
— The King Center (@TheKingCenter) February 5, 2018
However, as Paul Levy explains, this distancing appears wholly disingenuous given that the King Center partnered with the organization that does handle the licensing — Intellectual Properties Management — and that organization… appears to work on the premises of the King Center.
The King Center issued a Twitter statement distancing itself from the grant of permission to use the speech in the ad, without owning up to the fact that Center itself refers users to ?Intellectual Properties Management? for requests to use the ?works and intellectual property? of Dr. King, and that this commercial licensing operation is conducted on the King Center?s own premises. In short, there is a long and sordid history of King?s heirs monetizing their pretensions to control of historic references to their illustrious forebearer.
Intellectual Properties Management issued a statement indicating that it had licensed the specific use made of the speech in the ad as being consistent with Dr. King?s philosophy. Dodge refused to tell me what the fee was, claiming that the amount is ?proprietary information?; IPM never responded to questions about the amount of the fee and how the payment is being used.
Furthermore, Chrysler’s own statement about this notes that it had “the privilege of working closely with the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. to celebrate these words…” So, as Levy notes, even as the Estate tries to distance itself, it appears to have been involved, and passing off the blame on a separate operation that is closely tied to itself that handles licensing of King’s words seems like weak sauce.
But this story gets even crazier. It didn’t take long for people to look at the full “Drum Major Instinct” sermon that was the basis for the Dodge ad, and realize that, elsewhere in the speech, it included some rather pointed comments about advertising — and explicitly mentioning car advertising as the kind of thing he was complaining about:
We are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlement of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things that, kinda gets you on the vine. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whisky. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive THIS type of car…. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff? I’ve got to drive THIS CAR, because it’s something about THIS CAR that makes my car a little better than my neighbor’s car.
Which, you know… looks pretty damning. So then the folks at Current Affairs took the original Ram commercial and overlayed it with that part of the speech.
— Current Affairs (@curaffairs) February 5, 2018
And then they posted it to YouTube… where Chrysler issued a copyright takedown. No joke.
predictably, chrysler made youtube take down our reworked version of their appalling MLK ad, because they don't give a crap about either Martin Luther King or fair use. pic.twitter.com/n9MKTMEL11
— Current Affairs (@curaffairs) February 5, 2018
Of course, the video is now back up, either because Chrysler realized how bad this looked or someone at YouTube decided this was safely in fair use territory. Either way, we’re not embedding the original ad here, but you might want to see this reimagined one:
Either way, as Michael Hirtzik at the LA Times notes in a thorough and fairly comprehensive article, this (once again) demonstrates why it’s so problematic that this content is locked up, rather than open to the public. Hirtzik argues for moving the licensing efforts away from the King Estate entirely:
Given King’s unique stature as a public figure, it’s proper to ask why members of his family should have the last word on licensing. The easy answer is that it’s because the law gives them that right. But that’s a technicality, albeit a decisive one. But if they’re really determined to protect their father’s legacy, they should consider voluntarily turning over the decision-making process to a different, or at least a larger, entity. A foundation board comprising scholars and historians, for instance, with advisory roles for business experts and, sure, family members.
The process should be open and transparent, so at least we don’t have a situation where some corporation drapes itself in King’s preacherly robes while the estate issues fatuous excuses that a TV commercial embodies “Dr. King’s philosophy.” That doesn’t make anyone involved look good, or honest.
But, I wouldn’t jump so quickly over the “the law gives them that right” part. We should zero in on that and ask why? Why is this the proper public policy result? Why do we allow copyright to be granted on such a thing? Why don’t we more widely to allow such things to be used under fair use? Why are we so focused on locking up the legacy of people that we have to license every word they said, rather than letting the world make use of them to build on them, to comment on them and to share them more freely? The King Estate and its attempt to hide away from the blame over this licensing decision is one thing. But the underlying copyright issues should not be ignored as well. None of this would be possible if our copyright laws were sane and reasonable.