Fight for the Future Naive About King “Dream” Speech

FFTF Dream Screen Shot

I have a dream that one day my children will be judged not by the content of their character, but by the content they can steal.  

So, my friend David Lowery, on his blog The Trichordist, has been taking the organization Fight for the Future to task lately, and he most recently caught the organization in a lie related to DMCA  takedown and their defiant upload of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to YouTube. Back in 2013, to celebrate the  first anniversary of the defeat of SOPA, FFTF posted the “Dream” speech to YouTube in direct violation of the King estate’s copyright in the work; and the group told people to share the clip in what they called a “small act of civil disobedience.”  Small indeed. It’s bad enough to conflate the whinging, privileged, and corporate-backed “fight” against SOPA with the deadly labors of Dr. King, but there’s something even more insidiously galling about this whole MLK/copyright conflict that Fight for the Future and their ilk really don’t understand.  And maybe it’s because they grew up in a world of sound bites.

Since roughly five minutes after the Constitution was ratified, this country has been trying to live up to its own ideals, and getting there—and we’re not there—has taken decades and cost many brave people their lives.  In that speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King is demanding that America be true to its principles when he invokes the Declaration’s all men are created equal.  Those words are Jefferson’s preface to citing the natural rights of Man, which Jefferson cribbed from John Locke, whence comes the idea that the fruits of one’s labor are a civil right.  King’s enormous contribution is a part of that continuum—a history of struggle for the value of the individual voice to vote to speak to protest and to enjoy the fruits of his or her labor on equal footing with all other citizens.  And that last principle is why the intellectual property clause exists in the Constitution in the first place.

Yes, Dr. King is a big part of America’s struggle toward its best intentions, but it isn’t just a story about prejudice against race or sex or identity; it’s a story about the value of the individual and his or her right to pursue happiness.  Hence labor rights are invariably a central component of every civil rights battle ever fought—from literal slavery to the workers’ rights of the early 20th century to ongoing demands for equal work opportunities for women.  When Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he was there to protest the exploitation of city garbage workers.  Even the “Dream” speech itself was part of a march called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”  The value of the individual’s labor is a cornerstone of civil rights; and what these featherweight activists at Fight for the Future completely fail to realize is that intellectual property rights are a significant expression—in fact the first legal expression in this country—of that fundamental principle

Meanwhile, the free speech we enjoy—the free speech groups like FFTF believe is threatened by the King family’s copyrights—owes a great deal to the courage of King and his followers.  In the 1964 case of New York Times Co. v Sullivan, Alabama courts upheld a libel claim against the Times for publishing an ad called Heed Their Rising Voices in support of the King-led marches in the South.  The city commissioner of Montogomery L.B. Sullivan sued over the negative portrayal of his police department, and had the US Supreme Court not overturned key precedents in the lower court rulings, then the power of newspapers and public advocates to criticize elected officials and government agencies would likely have been diluted for many years to follow.  So, even with regard to free speech itself, all this digital-age dithering over a work that is widely and affordably available is a little pathetic in context to the history in which these people are dabbling.  (Coincidentally, I watched the “I Have a Dream Speech” last night, for the zillionth time in my life, as part of Episode 5 of the CNN-produced series The Sixties, now streaming on Netflix.)

So, yeah, we can debate the practical application of copyright, discuss whether or not a particular work should remain protected and for how long.  But when a bunch of privileged, 21st-century kids (backed by very wealthy corporations, I might add) declare, from the comfort of their keyboards, that the emancipation of Dr. King’s speech from the “chains of copyright” is somehow a fight for civil rights, I propse that FFTF should change its acronym to STFU.  This is especially true when their idea of a “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws” means in this case to serve King up to corporate masters so his legacy can rightly become their property to monetize rather than his family’s.

My generation grew up with Dr. King’s words as part of our consciousness, miraculously without the aid of YouTube or the internet.  In fact, it’s noteworthy that the limited scope of access in the 1960s probably played a significant role in accelerating the progress of particularly the Voting Rights Act.  Because the first wave of Selma marchers had the unbelievable guts to walk unarmed into a mob of cops and goons brandishing knightsticks, pipes, and barbed-wire-wrapped clubs, and because the enitre nation was limited to just a few TV networks, it meant that tens of millions of citizens simultaneously watched—in a sense were forced to watch—the sight of innocent people being mauled. So, our new world of abundance isn’t always the potent, connective tissue we think it is.

Probably the most telling irony in this story is that by spending so much energy and corporate money fussing about the copyright on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the folks at Fight for the Future demonstrate that they don’t really seem to understand the speech at all.  They demand access on principle but learn nothing about the work itself.  And if that isn’t the lie of the digital utopia writ large, I don’t know what is.

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Sam Flintlock

    There’s another interesting irony here as well.

    King was explicitly anti capitalist (and more so in his later speeches) and a democratic socialist.

    Which makes it the height of hypocrisy for his name to be invoked not only by corporate money, but by the kind of predatory ubercapitalism so prevalent in Silicon Valley.

    • David Newhoff

      Indeed. Thanks, Sam. There are many layers here that reveal the way in which the King/copyright topic is unexamined. Ultimately, we have to conclude that anti-copyright activists, etc. cherry pick the “Dream” speech because it is topical, popular, and recognizable; and it appears to fit their message on a very superficial level. This casualness is probably what I find most offensive. In truth, without context, the speech itself tells the viewer very little. It’s a rally-the-troops speech beautifully rendered, but without knowing anything about the journey to Washington and especially the history after Washington, it’s something of a soundbite. That kind of dissociation is exactly what Silicon Valley exploits to generate revenue; and it’s really quite gross when organizations defend that in King’s name.

  • Guy with a Brain


    copy (another person’s work) illicitly or without acknowledgment.
    “he was doing an exam and didn’t want anybody to crib the answers from him”
    synonyms: copy, plagiarize, poach, appropriate, steal, “borrow”; More

    So when is Locke’s estate going to send the DMCA to Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence?

    • David Newhoff

      I would not confuse my informal description of history with Jefferson borrowing from Locke without acknowledgement. Locke’s ideas would not be copyrightable, only his expressions. Even Locke’s expressions would be in the public domain by 1776 under today’s copyright terms. And of course, the Declaration predates the DMCA by 222 years.

  • Guy with a Brain

    It was meant to be funny but illustrated the point, that everyone copies from everyone. And copyright maximalism is a fallacy. At the end of the day it’s moot though because laws only exist to the point that they can be enforced. And you can either have privacy or all encompassing copyright, not both.

    • David Newhoff

      Right. I figured you weren’t entirely joking. But your point is moot that “everyone copies from everyone,” which is a half-baked observation repeated by people who neither understand the creative process nor the idea/expression dichotomy in copyright law. But those are big ideas that don’t fit into neat bullet points, like the term “copyright maximalist,” which also has no real meaning. That copyright cannot coexist with privacy is also a fallacy, and quite possibly a dangerous one since the agenda against copyright is funded by the same corporations that also see privacy as a barrier.

      • Guy with a Brain

        Let’s say I send you an email with an attachment. The attached file may or may not be copyrighted. How is the government to know without violating our privacy and reading the email?

      • David Newhoff

        Well, the government doesn’t litigate copyright infringement, the copyright owner does. So, assuming you mean that you’re sending an email blast, like an ad for a company, and you’re using a photograph without permission, the rights holder will learn about it (or not) the same way they learn about such infringements now. They stumble on it, someone tells them, etc. REOs don’t read emails, and individual rights holders certainly don’t have such capabilities. The only private company I know of to date that has “read” emails is Google, which has scanned emails for the purposes of delivering targeted ads, etc. It sounds like you’re conflating fear of government surveillance, which is a whole other conversation, with copyright enforcement.

      • Pirate Without Remorse

        Tell that to the companies that literally install rootkits with CDs as a means of copy-protection:

        Or the thousands of RIAA v. John Doe lawsuits targeting anonymous 12-year-olds and their grandmothers based on their IP address in Torrents:

        Or the NSA’s monitoring of filesharing traffic disclosed in Snowden documents, supposedly to look for jihadists:

        At least Google has a clear and explicit privacy policy. 😉

      • David Newhoff

        Assuming you’re responding to my last sentence, you’re doing the same conflating. BMG and RIAA stories have nothing to do with government surveillance, and the Motherboard story has nothing to do with copyright enforcement. I read it fast, but all that story says is that Leviathan was predicated on a hypothesis that terrorist-related files may be stored on a sharing service that is already operating outside the law. Not an entirely preposterous theory, by the way. Regardless, it is only related to copyright enforcement in your mind because, I’m guessing, it’s targeting file-sharing sites that trade in mass infrignement. The headline is typically provocative, but the story doesn’t really support what you seem to be proposing.

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