In Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc., the estate sued CBS for broadcasting a copy of the speech without consent. CBS countered by asserting that any copyright existing in the speech was lost to the public domain by virtue of a general publication of the speech without compliance with the statutory notice requirement of the 1909 Copyright Law.
In light of today's "I Have A Dream" anniversary, it is appropriate to comment briefly on the issue of copyright divestment and general versus limited publication.
The Eleventh Circuit in the CBS case analyzed the issue of divestment of title under the 1909 law. Generally, if a work was published without compliance with statutory formalities, including employment of the statutory copyright notice, then the copyright can be lost to the public domain. The divestment of title therefore turns on whether there is a publication, and whether the publication is general or limited. If a general publication of the speech occurred without compliance with notice requirements, then the copyright would be lost to the public domain. But a mere limited publication would not create the same result.
The court explained that a general publication occurs when a work is provided to the public without control and without regard to the identity of the recipient or the intended use of the work by the recipient. Publishing a work in this manner without employing the statutory copyright notice causes a loss of the copyright to the public domain. A limited publication, on the other hand, involves a publication to a select group of the public for a limited or controlled purpose whereby the recipient is not given the right to copy or distribute the work. This type of limited publication without the copyright notice does not divest an author from the copyright.
Was there a publication of the speech? CBS could not claim that Dr. King's public presentation of his speech on the National Mall constituted a publication because, as a general principle of copyright law, a public performance does not constitute publication. But CBS claimed that when advance printed copies of Dr. King's speech was given to the media, a general publication occurred. These printed copies lacked a copyright notice and, argued CBS, the general publication divested copyright ownership from Dr. King. The Court pointed out, however, that allowing news media access to a newsworthy event, by providing advance printed copies of a newsworthy speech that they would subsequently be witness to and report on, does not constitute a general publication of the speech but only a limited publication. The Court observed, with respect to the media's access to newsworthy material, that "the authority was granted to a limited group for a limited purpose [to report the news] * * * the restrictions on copying and reproduction were implied." Id., at 16. Accordingly, providing printed copies of the speech to the news media was at most a limited publication. The failure to apply a statutory copyright notice did not divest title from Dr. King.
It is reported that the "I Have A Dream" speech represents one of the finest examples of public oratory in U.S. history. Not only does Dr. King's dream live on, but so does the copyright in the speech. Dr. King died in 1968, and the copyright in his speech will last for 70 years from his death, through 2038.
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.