Copyrighting of Seminal Speeches vis-à-vis the General Public Benefit

Copyrighting of Seminal Speeches vis-à-vis the General Public Benefit

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Copyrighting of Seminal Speeches vis-à-vis the General Public Benefit


It is in the public interest that significant life-changing speeches should be readily availed by all the people for further reference and academic purposes. For instance, Martin Luther King’s appealing rhetoric mooting for racial justice and a tolerant society has been regarded as bedrock for the black community and it has since dictated the conception of civil liberties for the generations of Americans that followed. It also inspired the establishment of conventional codes that governed relationships between people, an example being the US Declaration of Independence. Owing to this, the phrase “I have a dream” has proven to be a cornerstone for understanding the social fabric and turmoil which was prevalent at that time and it gave the whole nation an excellent medium of expressing what was happening.[1]

However, gains made by such appealing ingenuous seminal oratory works have been greatly hampered by the need for families associated with such prominent orators who opt to make a good living out of speeches made by their relatives. In a bid to do this, they put in place machinations to have the speeches copyrighted and unavailable to both the media and the public at large unless they pass the rights unto them. The biggest dilemma that the present right-minded scholars have been presented with is to ascertain what precedes the other; between the rights of such speech makers and their descendants to copyright and privatize their speeches, as against the right of the innocent public to access such a transformative information be it for educational purposes or in a bid to reflect on past events which may have overarching influence to their present lives.

An analysis of the Status of these important Speeches

The Legal Approach

This dicey state of affairs has attracted various angles within which it can be examined to make an informed opinion on the best way to handle such speeches. The best two point of views from which it can be perceived are the legal approach and the moral approach. The legal approach has been crystal clear in the minds of many legal scholars because of the jurisprudential developments that have been made regarding the subject matter. The landmark and most appropriate case illustrating the jurisprudential stance of courts in this matter is the case of Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc.[2]

The dispute in this case was informed by the fact that when King made the “I have a dream” speech in public and with presence of a large audience; in an event that was live and televised, the speech had not been presented to the Register of Copyright with a view to obtaining federal copyright protection. According to state law, common law copyright could only exist before the work was published; therefore, the argument was that the text of the speech had been released to the public when he made the speech, in the presence of the media, and in doing so, the text of that speech got into the public domain, thus lost the shield. This means that it could be easily copied and also distributed by anyone without permission to do so. The other side of the dispute was that Dr. King had already registered the text of that speech the following month as an unpublished work.

According to the Copyright Act of 1909,[3] Common law copyright could only suffice if the work were unpublished. Since the Act did not conform to regulations of the Berne Convention,[4] The copyright could only be acquired once necessary copyright formalities on registration had been satisfied. While CBS insisted that Dr. King had failed to comply with the statute, and thus, by performing the work, he just surrendered it to the public. His actions of distributing copies of the text to newsrooms were also construed by the defendants to constitute publication; an argument that was fiercely refuted by the plaintiffs

Another question that was also rightly addressed, in this case, is the issue of general publication vis-à-vis limited edition. It was illustrated that a general publication can occur if first, a general publication occurs if tangible copies of the text in question are disseminated to the public in a way that would facilitate the public to exhibit full dominion and unfettered control over the whole work. The second way is if the work displayed in a way that would easily give room for unrestricted copying and accessing by the general public. In cases of a general publication, the author of the original work cannot claim foul play since he is taken to have inflicted the injury on himself. The court also pronounced itself to the effect that the act of distributing the information to newsrooms could only constitute a limited publication that does not cede in any way the rights of an author. Ultimately, Justice Anderson, the court was further remanded to the district court. The parties, however, reached an out of court settlement before the matter was heard.

The Moral Approach

The Second argument that could be advanced by any faction is the moral value of allowing the public to access such information that is so fundamental to their social, economic and political development. Any ardent supporter of copyright laws must also acknowledge and pontificate that there could be other values and ideals that have to override the formalities of copyright law. Even Though the “I Have a Dream” speech is copyrighted work as of now and enjoys protection of the law, it is also a significant ideal in U.S. history and its utility extends beyond the commercial interests which are usually protected by copyright law.[5]

Therefore from a moral point of view, it would be prudent for the authorities to take a utilitarian approach and identify the greatest common good that can be achieved by these kinds of speeches. This proposition is also likely to generate further problems and dilemmas. The first being the threshold of identifying what type of work should be regarded to be so important and core to the culture as to obviate the need of them being protected by copyright law. In as much as this question is hard to answer, what is clear though is that some of these works should be released to the public domain or at least the public should be granted special rights to the work because of its general importance. If this could be done perfectly, the world would witness more transformations because then, documentaries will harbor more of such speeches and, newspapers could easily print such transcripts without fear of being on the wrong side of the law.


In as much as I would wish to have these life-changing speeches freed from the copyright veil that obstructs the public from getting further knowledge about the status of the country, there are other pragmatic considerations which have to be made. To start with, as of now copyright law is not all about protecting the art. Virtually everything that exists under the sun is capable of being copyrighted regardless of any levels of creativity employed in coming up with it.

Therefore, it would not be prudent still to create an exception in the law to cover speeches like “I have a dream” because this could further open a Pandora box. If any such exception is made, it would be tantamount to making an avenue for the general public to circumvent the observance of copyright law in its entirety. Also, this would further create more uncertainty in the domain of intellectual property law. The intention to protect these prominent works might be clear and honest, but essentially, the effect is likely to transcend to all other items covered by copyright law.

I would however propose that copyright law should be changed in its entirety to portend a draftsmanship which takes into consideration the greatest public good and in equal measure factors in the individual interests that may be held by authors and artists of these unique pieces of information. This is because, still in such situations like the one with the Martin Luther King Speech, holders of copyright are left in a precarious situation whether they are original holders or merely heirs of the copyright. In as much as the work is likely to have been created with great effort and creativity; and work and has as a result of that, gained great value and significance to the public, they are pressurized by the public to give up the copyright just like that.

It is also plausible to argue that to a greater extent almost all copyrighted work has a greater meaning to the general public and a certain level have greatly contributed to the transformation of people’s lives and perception about certain things. Every book conveys a message, and every movie has a theme, every song has important information to deliver, and every invention is intended to solve a certain problem. Therefore, all these work to promote the well-being of all people and should thus not be downplayed in favor of a few prominent works.

The law on copyrights empowers holders of rights to exploit fully those works even in a manner that could distort their legacy and hidden meanings. On the other hand, the holders are also at liberty to secure the rights and further the legacy for a long time. In a nutshell, as it stands now, it is only at the behest of the holders of these rights to determine the manner in which their works could be utilized. This is very challenging from the point of view of works with greater legacies, but it could still be achieved. As an example, the family of Martin Luther King at least allowed the speech to be utilized for educational purposes, and it has not sued any educational institution with respect to this. It is thus important for the dialogue to prevail and not to raise an accusing finger towards such holders of these rights haphazardly.


King, M. L., Carson, C., Holloran, P., Luker, R. E., & Russell, P. A. (1992). The papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Griffiths, J., & Conference. Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute. (2004). Copyright and free speech: Comparative and international analyzes. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Bass, S. J. (2001). Blessed are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., eight white religious leaders, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail. Baton Rouge, La: Louisiana State University Press.

[1] King, M. L., Carson, C., Holloran, P., Luker, R. E., & Russell, P. A. (1992) The papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Berkeley: University of California Press

[2] (194 F.3d 1211 (11th Cir. 1999))

[3] This Act was subsequently repealed and replaced with the Copyright Act, 1976

[4] Berne Convention. For the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, 1886


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