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:

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.

And then they posted it to YouTube... where Chrysler issued a copyright takedown. No joke.

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.


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  1. icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 5 Feb 2018 @ 3:38pm

    I have a dream
    that one day, the quotability of people's words will be judged,
    not by the whims of their IP owner,
    but by the character of their content!
    I have a dream!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Jordan Chandler, 5 Feb 2018 @ 3:50pm

    oh man

    1. If you're a Dodge fan you're still a Dodge fan
    2. If you weren't going to buy a truck, you're still not going to

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2018 @ 4:21pm

    So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons to sell laundry soap.

    That's implied in the last para.

    Is there anything that you don't want monetized and degraded for commercial interests, so that today's sleazy young grifters can get richer without ever contributing to the Great Society they inherited? Should we sell advertising space on The White House Fence? Cups and coasters off Air Force One while The Prez is making a speech?

    And this among all possible and far more important topics? Saw the word "copyright" and went berserk as usual, twisting it to your ends.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2018 @ 4:25pm

    Re: So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons to sell laundry soap.

    Yes, without copyright protection there would have been no incentive for Dr. King to make speeches!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 5 Feb 2018 @ 4:25pm

    Not By The Colour Of Their Copyright Licence ...

    ... but by the content of their character.

    I have a dream today.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2018 @ 4:34pm

    And there isn't even any plagiarism involved!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    An Onymous Coward (profile), 5 Feb 2018 @ 4:39pm

    Re: So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons to sell laundry soap.

    As usual, you jump to some wild conclusions not based in anything remotely resembling reality.

    You saw a post from Mike Masnick and went berserk as usual.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 5 Feb 2018 @ 4:45pm

    Re: So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons to sell laundry soap.

    You know, you are right. No one should be able to use such works, including barf-inducing cynical corporate use for advertising, without paying some fsckwit who had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of the work used. That makes things so much better!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2018 @ 5:13pm

    >So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons.....

    Sadly, there are no "natural" persons in this picture. This was just a deal between two corporations.

    Which Mike seemed to disapprove of, so the issue of what he "wanted" didn't arise.

    And money changed hands, so the issue of "stealing" doesn't arise either.

    And people with a, like, clue wouldn't use the term "virtue" in discussions of law, economics (or, for that matter, particle physics)--it doesn't really, like, MEAN anything.

    Otherwise, your logic seems up to its usual standards of "excellence"[*].

    [*] Used in the corporate sense, of course, where "level of excellence" is the standard term for what an engineer would call "delusion of adequacy".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 5 Feb 2018 @ 5:22pm

    Re: So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons to sell laundry soap.

    That paragraph is not necessarily about using the words and works of the famous-yet-dead to enrich corporate interests. It can be construed that way, yes—but it can also refer to the general public’s right to use those words and works without having to license them out from an estate or licensing company. The pertinent question is thus: Why should people/corporations with obscene amounts of money be the only ones allowed to use the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.?

    But hey, fine, say you cannot relate to that idea. Here is one that is a bit more “modern”: The works of Michael Jackson will remain in copyright until everyone currently reading this comment, this post, and this blog at the time I post this comment are all dead and buried. Only those people or corporations with obscene amounts of money can license out his works to use as they see fit. Why should they be the only ones allowed to use his works over the next 60-plus years that Jackson’s works remain under copyright? Why does the world not receive the benefit of his works falling into the public domain? What purpose does copyright serve Michael Jackson now that he is dead?

    The issue is not whether corporations get to use the words and works of people like Michael Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr. The issue is whether everyone else gets to use them, too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 5 Feb 2018 @ 5:27pm

    Re:

    Sadly, there are no "natural" persons in this picture. This was just a deal between two corporations.

    Despite what you may think after watching a shitload of Black Mirror or somesuch other sci-fi series, corporations do not exist as autonomous AIs or corporeal spectres of some sort. People still run the damn things. (Oh, sorry, “natural” “persons”. Wouldn’t want to upset the individuals and the persons who make up the SovCit community here in the Techdirt comments!) The deal was negotiated between people on both sides, and to think otherwise is to transcend ignorance in a way that would make even Flat Earthers look at you funny.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2018 @ 5:37pm

    Re:

    Yeah but did the flags behind his speech have gold fringe?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2018 @ 6:12pm

    Re: So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons to sell laundry soap.

    "Gobble, gobble," mumbled blue under the corporate phallus he was consuming.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Atkray (profile), 5 Feb 2018 @ 7:10pm

    They should have used The Speech®­­ to sell Crock Pots™.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2018 @ 7:48pm

    With quote mining like that the advertising people at Chrysler have promising futures as YEC apologists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Pixelation, 5 Feb 2018 @ 8:17pm

    Too bad

    The future MLK jr was envisioning is {redacted}.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2018 @ 11:43pm

    Jesus drives a donkey, not a Caddy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    David, 6 Feb 2018 @ 3:21am

    Easy to answer:

    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?

    Because those are powerful words, and powerful words should be used for good, not for evil. And good is distinguished from bad in the U.S. by the good having good money.

    This is what gives the U.S. the best politicians and law makers money can buy. It gives the U.S. the best justice money can buy. It gives the best environmental protection policies money can buy.

    This is what makes the U.S. great. Again and again and all over.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Feb 2018 @ 4:39am

    Even more than the "car commercial" bit...

    ...I think MLK Jr might have had a problem with his imperative to serve being overlaid with militaristic imagery.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Feb 2018 @ 4:53am

    Copyright extensions

    Corporate America says they won't try to get a new copyright extension this year to keep Steamboat Willy locked up forever. Many people think that they will try and sneak it in.

    Mike posts each year about books that would have gone into the public domain each January, but aren't now.

    We need real copyright reform. Copyright was intended to last for a limited period of time. If you can't even specify the exact number of years, it's certainly not limited. When it's different for each work, that is not a limited period of time. (What other law has no specific time period?)

    We need real copyright reform. It's still too long, but make copyright expire 70 years from the date it is issued. Copyright terms should be 14 years (14 x 5 = 70), and each renewal should not be automatic.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Feb 2018 @ 7:04am

    as usual

    self sabotage revealing that they don't really care about justice or equality... just power and a buck.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Feb 2018 @ 7:16am

    Re: So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons to sell laundry soap.

    "...so that today's sleazy young grifters can get richer without ever contributing to the Great Society they inherited?"

    They won't pay income taxes?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    ShadowNinja (profile), 6 Feb 2018 @ 8:10am

    Re: Re: So, you actually WANT corporations stealing the virtue of "natural" persons to sell laundry soap.

    .... ...... ......

    (Translation: I would say I agree with you, but copyright on comments is meaningless so I have no incentive to speak)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    John S (profile), 6 Feb 2018 @ 8:19am

    So why does King even have the copyright on this recording?

    I thought the copyright belonged to the person or entity who made the recording. In this case, was King in a public space when he made this speech? Was the recording done by a news organization? How did the copyright end up in his estate? Sure, the copyright on his speech might be his, but in this case, the film is adding more ontop of that, which is (should?) be transformative and worth a new copyright.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Thad, 6 Feb 2018 @ 8:59am

    Re: Re:

    I read a pretty good Charles Stross blog post recently that argued that corporations are effectively the first AIs, it's just that they're a lot bigger and slower than the AIs we've got now.

    You're right that humans are ultimately in charge of (and responsible for) corporations' behavior, but on a fundamental level they are driven by algorithms, in the same way that computer-based AIs are.

    Sometimes they're even the same thing. Yesterday's stock market drop was certainly caused by corporate-owned, computer-based AIs.

    It's an interesting topic, when not being used by anonymous trolls as a bludgeon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Feb 2018 @ 9:30am

    Re: So why does King even have the copyright on this recording?

    That just means there are TWO copyrights to deal with.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    Harold, 6 Feb 2018 @ 3:41pm

    Stupid

    Was looking for a 4wd SUV needed for where I live. Jeep is no longer on my list because they are STUPID.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Feb 2018 @ 6:29pm

    Re: So why does King even have the copyright on this recording?

    Assume the King estate bought the copyright until proven otherwise.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 6 Feb 2018 @ 9:02pm

    Re:

    Good thing the weekly best comments roundup has multiple spots.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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