Martin Luther King’s Heirs’ Blatant Abuse of IP Claims to Control His Image

by Paul Alan Levy

The current controversy stirred by broad popular revulsion over the Superbowl ad run by Dodge Ram, which included a voice-over excerpted from a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., thus using it to sell a truck, ignores a dirty little secret all-to-well known among those of us who worry about the use of abusive intellectual property claims to quash public discussion of celebrities and corporations alike.

The heirs of Dr. King are notorious for the issuance of cease-and-desist letters  and even bringing suit against those who presume to use the name, words or recordings of Dr. King without their consent, consent that must be purchased through the payment of a licensing fee.  The considerable resources of EMI Music Publishing are used to enforce these bullying demands when a recording is at issue.  The other side of the coin is that, by claiming control over the use of Dr. King's name, image, and words, and consistently turning that control to profiteering ends, the heirs must shoulder the blame for misuse of those "assets."

One result was that the recent movie about the civil rights struggle in Selma omitted any use of Dr. King’s own words, because "the MLK estate ha[d] already licensed the film rights" to others.  Even though fair use was likely a successful defense, the Hollywood backers of the movie were skittish about possible litigation.

The King Center issued a Twitter statement distancing itself from the grant of permission to use the speech in the ad, without owning up to the fact that Center itself refers users  to “Intellectual Properties Management” for requests to use the “works and intellectual property” of Dr. King, and that this commercial licensing operation is conducted on the King Center’s own premises. In short, there is a long and sordid history of King’s heirs monetizing their pretensions to control of historic references to their illustrious forebear.

Intellectual Properties Management issued a statement indicating that it had licensed the specific use made of the speech in the ad as being consistent with Dr. King’s philosophy. Dodge refused to tell me what the fee was, claiming that the amount is “proprietary information”; IPM never responded to questions about the amount of the fee and how the payment is being used.  Nor has the King Center responded to questions about whether it will refuse to accept the financial benefit of this licensing deal.

So blame Dodge, but blame King’s estate as well for this crass misuse of King’s words.  The history of the civil rights movement belongs to all of us, not just to King's biological progeny.  Time for third party users to stand up against bullying from the King Center.

And then we can start insisting on the public's right to use the word "Superbowl" instead of "The Big Game"……

0 thoughts on “Martin Luther King’s Heirs’ Blatant Abuse of IP Claims to Control His Image

  1. Paul Levy says:

    Indeed. This afternoon I endured a private lecture from a young activist who told me, with an entirely straight face, that criticizing the King Estate is an example of “white privilege.”

  2. Mitch Stoltz says:

    Cue the histrionics about how any copyright-related conduct that increases the revenue of a worthy organization can never be criticized. We saw this with the Diary of Anne Frank, as well.

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