King's heirs battle to protect his legacy

January 19, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Speakers at Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations like to remind listeners that the slain civil rights leader's legacy belongs to all Americans.

But Dr. King's heirs have increasingly issued another reminder: In a legal sense at least, that legacy belongs to them.

Consider:

* After USA Today published the full text of Dr. King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech -- oratory that has become part of the fabric of American history -- the King estate sued the newspaper last month for copyright infringement.

* The King estate took Boston University to court over 83,000 personal papers that Dr. King gave the university during his lifetime. Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and their four children are appealing a Boston jury's decision last May that the estate had no right to the papers.

* When the producer of "Eyes on the Prize," the award-winning public television series that chronicles the civil rights movement, began to sell the documentary on video, the King estate demanded royalties and the dispute wound up in court.

"If people want to use things, they have to come and get permission. The estate has become far more proactive," said Michele Clark Jenkins, who was named general manager of the estate 18 months ago.

"Remember, how we do things will affect history," said Ms. Jenkins, a lawyer by training who has extensive Hollywood experience.

"If people inaccurately portray Dr. King, then that goes down for posterity. . . . Our No. 1 priority is to make sure it's accurate and appropriate."

Dr. King's legacy, which has been celebrated over the past week in observances of his 65th birthday, is unusual.

While not a public official, he made speeches that nonetheless are as well-known as those of presidents. While he was not an entertainer, his name and image have considerable commercial appeal.

How much the King estate takes in from licensing fees and royalties is unclear.

Ms. Jenkins will say only that revenues are "modest." The money helps support the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

The revenue potential -- and the potential for commercial abuse of the King legacy -- are both great. Producer Spike Lee's 1992 film about another late civil rights leader, Malcolm X, touched off a marketing boom that sent Malcolm X's estate scrambling to protect its rights, raised questions of taste and made lots of money.

"People were using Malcolm's material and copyrighting it as their own," said Betty Shabazz, his widow.

"I woke up one morning totally nonplused and thought, 'This is abuse in the broadest, deepest and wildest sense. If I don't sleep, eat or anything else, this is going to end.' "

Ms. Shabazz retained Curtis Management Group of Indianapolis, which eventually licensed 350 to 400 Malcolm X products, said Mark Roesler, chief executive of the firm. Mr. Roesler says more than $100 million worth of Malcolm X merchandise was sold under license in 1992-93, roughly 5 percent of which went to the estate in fees.

Should King merchandise become fashionable, the Atlanta-based estate is ready. It asks that anyone who wants to use Dr. King's name, image, likeness, recorded voice or copyrighted works -- including the "I Have a Dream" speech -- obtain written permission.

"There has been a fairly serious attempt by Mrs. King and the estate to draw a protective ring around his life and legacy, to prevent it being exploited for less than honorable purposes," said Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.

Typically, Ms. Jenkins says, nonprofit institutions may use the King legacy for free.

Commercial enterprises, including authors and filmmakers, must pay for the privilege.

The Sun paid the estate $1,500 to publish an advertising insert a week ago that included a photograph of Dr. King and the full text of the "I Have a Dream" speech, and to use excerpts from the speech on its Sundial telephone service, said Michael L. Shultz, a spokesman for the newspaper.

In the USA Today case, the King estate contends in papers filed in federal court in Atlanta that the newspaper at first negotiated a fee of $1,250 to publish the "I Have a Dream" speech, but then printed it in full without paying anything.

The newspaper published the speech Aug. 27, 1993, to mark the 30th anniversary weekend of the March on Washington, when Dr. King delivered his most famous address before 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial.

Dr. King copyrighted the speech about a month later. (Mrs. King renewed the copyright in 1991.) He also made a deal with Motown Records to sell a recording of his speeches.

While the speech was an immediate sensation and widely disseminated, a federal court in New York ruled in December 1963 that it had not entered the public domain and thus could not be reproduced in full without permission.

The King estate's suit against USA Today, which asks $100,000 in damages, contends that publication of the speech creates the "damaging impression" that it is not copyrighted.

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