Why You've Never Read "I Have A Dream"

(I know some people will be interested in a followup post to Don’t Fly During Ramadan. I plan on writing one, but this post happens to be timely.)

Yesterday, August 28th, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream”.

If you live in the US, you’ve probably heard of this speech. You’ve also probably never read it, heard the audio, or seen the video in its entirety.

Unfortunately, the speech is under copyright, and will remain so until 2083. As a result, it is illegal to republish under most circumstances.

Except for the famous, titular line, textbooks in schools almost never publish “I Have A Dream”. Documentaries can only include small, five-second clips. Take a moment and ask the people sitting near you if they’ve ever heard the opening lines:

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the
greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. ”

I’ll bet you they haven’t.

Your children, grandchildren, and perhaps great-grandchildren, will probably grow up without the opportunity of experiencing this moment in history. They will learn about it in grade school, based off of secondhand accounts from teachers who have never read the speech either. And so on.

Frustratingly, the copyright holders include the estate of the person who delivered the speech, but not even the estate of the two other people who wrote it (and likely wrote most of it).

Worse, “I Had A Dream” was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. If it had been delivered in 2013, not 1963, there would have been hundreds of cell phone recordings of the speech all across the Internet within minutes. It was truly a public performance in every sense of the word.

The original purpose of copyright, as defined by the US constitution:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

Emphasis mine.

Let’s ask ourselves: if Martin Luther King, Jr. had known that six generations of students would grow up without legal access to his speech at “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation”, would he have been more likely to deliver it…. or less?

EDIT Hacker News readers have been kind enough to point out that schools may be able to use copies of parts of the speech under “fair use” privileges, and that copies of the text of the speech are available online.

However, the King estate does heavily enforce its copyright on the video recording of the speech (arguably the more important part), and this recording is much harder to find online (and, when it can be found, is legally questionable).

In retrospect, this post should probably have been titled “Why You’ve Never Seen/Heard ‘I Have a Dream’”, since the argument is stronger for the video recording; however, it’s important to note that most modern textbooks don’t include the text of the speech, and that the reason for that is due to the copyright restrictions and the royalties.

Perhaps a teacher has the right (and enough interest) to print out copies for the student separately, but students are unlikely to find it in most textbooks.

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