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‘I Have a Dream’ speech still private property

Associated Press - The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. waves to the March on Washington crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the site of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Martin Luther King Jr. waves at 1963 March on Washington crowd from the Lincoln Memorial, the site of his “I Have a Dream” speech. (AP)

If you ever hear a complete recording of the Rev.  Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his extraordinarily powerful “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington Monument on Aug. 28, 1963, you will certainly never forget it. But it isn’t as easy as you might think to get access: The oration, as famous a speech as there is in American history, is private property, not in the public domain. Using it legally costs money, meaning that most people, including students learning about the civil rights movement, will at best only hear small bites of it.

Who owns the 17-minute speech? The King family. King himself obtained rights to his “I Have a Dream” speech a month after he gave it in 1963 when he sued two companies that were selling unauthorized copies. His family has since then received an income from exercising its intellectual property rights, and has gone to court to protect its copyright, including against CBS and USA Today ( though apparently not against educators who have used the speech in violation of the copyright).

Historians and civil rights leaders have long worried that keeping the speech under copyright effectively limited access so much over the decades has negatively affected the way young people look at King. The power of the speech is at least as much in his delivery as the words.

“It makes it harder” to learn about the speech, said historian Taylor Branch, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy of books that chronicles King’s life and the history of the civil rights movement. He said he has talked with the King family over the years about putting the speech in the public domain but they have refused. “They are making a mistake,” he said.

All of King’s speeches and papers are owned by his descendants. I asked representatives of the King Center in Atlanta to explain why the speech was never made public but the only response I got was  an e-mailed intellectual property request form to fill out.  Representatives for the King family have said in the past that the family wants educators to have access to it, and some King documents are available for free to researchers.

But under the law anyone who wants to hear or use the complete “I Have a Dream” speech is supposed to buy a copy sanctioned by the King family, which receives the proceeds. You can buy a DVD for $20 here, on the King Center Web site. According to this story by Alex Pasternack on, the speech is not in the new digital archive of the center’s Web site.

That story also explains that the King estate owns the speech along with a private corporation. It says:

Any unauthorized usage of the speech and a number of other speeches by King – including in PBS documentaries – is a violation of American law. You’d be hard pressed to find a good complete video version on the web, and it’s not even to be found in the new digital archive of the King Center’s website. If you want to watch the whole thing, legally, you’ll need to get the $20 DVD.


That’s because the King estate, and, as of 2009, the British music publishing conglomerate EMI Publishing, owns the copyright of the speech and its recorded performance. While the copyright restriction isn’t news, EMI’s unusual role in policing the use of King’s words – the first instance of the company taking on a non-music based intellectual property catalog – hasn’t been widely reported. In November 2011, EMI Group was auctioned off, and the publishing business was sold to a consortium run by Sony Corp for $2.2 billion.



Here’s the intellectual property request form that the King center sent to me:




Correction: Fixing misspelled word and removing notes.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · August 27, 2013

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