Dr. King & the Public Domain

Every time a Martin Luther King anniversary comes around, the anti-copyright armada is well armed with blogs and articles decrying the indecency that the civil rights leader’s words and recordings are not in the public domain.  And never one to miss such an opportunity, even while missing the point, Mike Masnick at Techdirt insists that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech should no longer be protected by copyright controlled by the King estate.

You know the speech, right?  Who doesn’t?  We celebrated it’s 50th anniversary yesterday, and it’s only one of the most famous pieces of oratory in world history.  Yet, despite the fact that Dr. King’s words managed to attain osmotic universality long before the invention of YouTube, one gets the idea from reading Masnick’s post that without “sharing” the speech through social media, it might simply vanish into oblivion.

I understand the sentiment.  After all, these words feel like public property, and they were among the many gifts King gave to humanity.  So, is it really fair that the King family can manage or even license this speech and “sully” its legacy with money?  It is.  And the primary reason should be obvious:  because YouTube doesn’t belong to the people, it belongs to Google; and Google monetizes every click. That means Masnick’s idealistic musings that sound humanistic are already sullied with money, except that in his world, the money would be Google’s, and the King family would get zip.  How is that more fair or better serving the public interest?

The internet industry has done such a thorough job of telling people that the web belongs to all of us, we actually believe it.  Masnick’s title “Let Freedom Ka-Ching” is admittedly clever, but it’s also hypocritical.  He mocks the tawdry commercialism of licensing King’s emancipating words for use as a ringtone and cites Professor Boyle of Duke University, who also mocks such use; but why is the alternative better?  If I made an homage mash-up that earned millions of views on YouTube, why would it be any less tawdry for Google to advertise fast food against it?  Go a step further:  what if a white-supremacist group creates a racist mash-up with the speech that generates millions of views, and Google sells ads against that? The King family would be powerless to do anything about it, and Google would keep the video online because it’s “free speech.”  Ka-ching!

We keep forgetting that copyright is often about preserving the integrity of works, and not just about money. Estates have long played the role of curators who protect the legacy of authors’ works, and we dismiss the value of this at our peril, even as we mock the idea of “I Have a Dream” as a ringtone. I happen to think a ringtone is not a bad use as uses go, but that’s another conversation.

The web moves fast, it favors what “trends” and not necessarily what endures.  There is no evidence to suggest that my fellow Americans are any more enlightened or have more ardently embraced the goals of the civil rights movement because of social media and so much jittery sharing of things.  Worse yet, can we say for certain that a generation or two from now, the legacy of King would not be mangled through reuse beyond all recognition?  The answer is no we can’t say that for certain because we’re making assumptions based on technologies and social trends that are less than a decade old.  And we have seen plenty of evidence that what goes viral is not always accurate or valuable.

I for one think Martin Luther King, Jr. already gave us plenty; and access to his works is anything but limited.  You might have to get off your butt and go to the library, but considering how far he walked, that doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)