By today's legal standards, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a copyright criminal. So were blues musicians, jazz musicians and other African Americans who treated words and melodies as communal wealth, not private property.
In the post-internet world, newly created works have to stand on their own as wholly original, untainted by earlier works. This was not the case with oral cultures. Oral tradition was central to African-American culture in part because laws forbade slaves from learning to read or write. During and after slavery, African American folk preachers gained stature in their community by merging words and ideas in their sermons with those of older, more established preachers. "In this context," argues scholar Keith Miller, "striking originality might have seemed self-centered or otherwise suspect."
While growing up, Martin Luther King Jr. absorbed this tradition, hearing religious themes and metaphors that originated during slavery. Two sermons King surely heard as a child, "The Eagle Stirs Her Nest" and "Dry Bones in the Valley," date back to the end of slavery and continue to be heard in black churches today. Earlier black folk preachers worked from the assumption that language is created by everyone and that it should not be considered private property. Like many who straddle two cultures, King created a hybrid system that integrated the Western print tradition of academia with African oral culture.
This reminded me of what The KLF observed in their book The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way), about how genuinely original black figures have been conned by the laws of copyright;
Gangsters of the groove from Bo Diddley on down believe they have been ripped off, not only by the business but by all the artists that have followed on from them. This is because the copyright laws that have grown over the past one hundred years have all been developed by whites of European descent, and these laws state that fifty per cent of the copyright of any song should be for the lyrics, the other fifty per cent for the top line (sung) melody; groove doesn't even get a look in.
If the copyright laws had been in the hands of blacks of African descent, at least eighty per cent would have gone to the creators of the groove, the remainder split between the lyrics and the melody. If perchance your are reading this and you are both black and a lawyer, make a name for yourself. Right the wrongs.
Similarly, when bebop jazz musicians take the chords from an old standard and go on a 20 minute improvisation displaying breathtaking originality and creativity, it's the writer of the original song who gets the royalty, as if it was just being robotically read from sheet-music.
It seems that Martin Luther King's work has been criticised by those who see words and ideas in the white-culture possessive model, whereas King knowingly mixed and matched in the tradition of what he'd grown up in.
So it comes as a shock to find out that when USA Today marked the 30th anniversary of the I Have A Dream speech, the King estate sued for infringement of copyright. Around the same time, King's son Dexter met with custodian's of Elvis Presley's estate and learned how to emulate the grave-robbing profiteering Elvis' people do so well.
Skin? Eyes? It's the colour of your money they're interested in. Kembrew tells of a textbook for teaching political communication that had to omit I Have A Dream because of the prohibitive price demanded by the King estate.
It's not about protecting Dr King's integrity, as Kembrew explains;
I'll never forget the bolt of anger I felt when I first saw the Cingular cell-phone commercial that digitally doctored footage of King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech. As the camera pans across the Washington Mall, the entire crowd has been erased, and King is speaking to no one. "Before you can inspire," went the voice-over, "you must first connect." I'd like to connect my foot to whoever's ass approved this commercial. It would be inspiring...
As a little experiment, I sent the King estate an e-mail inquiry about reprinting four sentences from "I Have a Dream" in a scholarly book. A few weeks later I received a contract in the mail from Writers House LLC, which licenses King's copyrights. The only way I could reprint those four sentences was to hand over two hundred dollars and adhere to nine other restrictive contractual stipulations. "I have a dream that one day ... my heirs will shill my image in cell-phone ads and charge scholars fifty dollars a sentence to reprint this speech." Inspiring.