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 – 2021, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.