ATLANTA -- Reversing a lower court's decision, a federal appellate court has revived a lawsuit by heirs of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who claim CBS violated copyright laws by broadcasting portions of his "I Have a Dream" speech without permission.
In July 1998, a federal judge here ruled that King's famous 1963 speech, delivered on the Mall in Washington before about 200,000 people and a throng of reporters, was, in essence, public property. U.S. District Judge William O'Kelley dismissed the King estate's case in response to CBS' request for summary judgment.
But in a 2-1 decision issued late Friday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling and sent the case back to O'Kelley for a more thorough hearing. The judges said there were issues to be decided about whether King's delivery of the speech constituted a "general publication," a legal principle that denies copyright protection to those who make their work available to the public without regard to how it may be used.
The appellate judges did not address other issues raised by CBS, including its claim to be protected under the First Amendment and fair-use copyright doctrines, because the lower court had not dealt with them. "Of course, we express no opinion on the eventual merits of this litigation," Judge Lanier Anderson III wrote for the majority.
Joseph Beck, an Atlanta lawyer who represents the King estate, which benefits King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and their four children, called the ruling "great news." He added, "After all Dr. King did to protect his copyright through registration and bringing a lawsuit against an offender, it's especially gratifying to see that the copyright has been restored."
The lawsuit stems from CBS' use of substantial footage of the "I Have a Dream" speech in a recent documentary series, "The 20th Century With Mike Wallace," which was produced for the Arts & Entertainment Network. CBS did not seek permission from the King estate to use the speech.
King's speech, a masterful oration and a critical moment in the civil rights movement, was broadcast live on television and radio and was widely reported in newspapers. Advance copies of the text were made available to news organizations. Those factors helped convince O'Kelley that the speech had been in the public domain.