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Dr. Martin Luther King wrote and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech more than fifty years ago. When he obtained copyright protection on the speech in 1963, Dr. King (and later his estate) would have expected the copyright to last a maximum of fifty-six years. That fifty-six-year copyright has become a ninety-five-year copyright, thanks to lengthy duration extensions enacted by Congress in the mid-1970s and late 1990s. As a result, the copyright on the “I Have a Dream” speech will not expire until the end of 2058.
Because the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. and its affiliates have closely guarded the speech in a copyright enforcement and licensing sense, the public seldom sees more than snippets of one of the most highly regarded speeches in history. Greater public exposure to the full speech would serve important purposes of the sort recognized by Congress in the fair use section of the Copyright Act. However, those interested in borrowing from or otherwise using the speech have tended to drop their plans or have obtained a costly license from the King Estate or one of the affiliated entities—even when the users may had have a plausible right under the fair use doctrine to borrow from or use the speech without obtaining a license. With the copyright on the speech not expiring until the end of 2058, there is a danger that the snippets-only nature of the public’s exposure to the speech will remain the status quo for more than another four decades.
* Professor of Business Law and Graf Family Professor, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. The author acknowledges the helpful research assistance provided by Paul Lewellyn and Daniel Schiff.