Martin Luther King Jr; Image Copyright & Intestacy

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Best known for advocating nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs to promote Civil Rights he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4 1968 at the age of 39. King died without a will.

King’s heirs formed the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc., a for profit corporation to allow his family to control his estate. Following the death of King’s Wife Coretta Scott King in 2006 and his oldest daughter Yolanda in 2007 relations among the remaining siblings began to deteriorate.

King’s son Dexter currently oversees the estate.  King’s children have brought a number of lawsuits against each other over the handling of the estate, citing the withholding of information, mismanagement and misappropriation of assets

The Estate took action against the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change a non-profit institution founded by King’s widow over 45 years ago to educate and promote King’s Legacy. Ongoing litigation with the estate has placed a financial burden on the Centre.

Dexter’s sister Bernice, is the head of the King Center that has displayed King’s traveling Bible and Nobel Peace Prize medal. Dexter, wanted to sell the Bible and medal to a private buyer, and claimed that by refusing to surrender the Bible and Nobel medal; Bernice is violating a 1995 agreement amongst the heirs that assigned title and all rights and interests in King’s property to the estate. Bernice disputes the validity of this agreement, arguing the estate has not complied with a 2009 court ruling.

Bernice claims that she inherited the Bible and Medal from her late Mother, and believes that they should never be sold because they are sacred.

Lawyers for both sides told the judge in May 2015 that they were close to an agreement but not quite there, and mediation was ordered following  the request of Bernice’s attorneys.

President Jimmy Carter was working as a mediator in the case.

The Estate has been highly litigious in protecting the physical and intellectual property of the estate. Including Martin Luther King’s name and likeness, recordings of his sermons and other memorabilia including with Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v CBS, Inc. the copyright status of the  “I have a dream”speech.

On the afternoon of August 28, 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (“SCLC”) held the March on Washington (“March”) to promote the growing civil rights movement. The events of the day were seen and heard by some 200,000 people gathered at the March, and were broadcast live via radio and television to a nationwide audience of millions of viewers. The highlight of the March was a rousing speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the SCLC’s founder and president, gave in front of the Lincoln Memorial (“Speech”). The Speech contained the famous utterance; “I have a dream …,” which became symbolic of the civil rights movement.

The Speech was reported in daily newspapers across the country, was broadcast live on radio and television, and was extensively covered on television and radio subsequent to the live broadcast. About a month after the delivery of the Speech, Dr. King took steps to secure federal copyright protection for the Speech under the Copyright Act of 1909, and a certificate of registration of his claim to copyright was issued by the Copyright Office on October 1963

For the next twenty years, Dr. King and the Estate enjoyed copyright protection in the Speech and licensed it for a variety of uses, and renewed the copyright when necessary.

In 1994, a documentary series entitled “The 20th Century with Mike Wallace” devoted a segment to “Martin Luther King, Jr. and The March on Washington” was made by CBS. It contained extensive footage filmed by CBS of the Speech (amounting to about 60% of its total content). CBS, however, did not seek the Estate’s permission to use the Speech in this manner and refused to pay royalties to the Estate.

The speech is not in the public domain but is private property, owned by the King family, and anybody who wants to use it is supposed to pay for that right. For that matter, family members own all of King’s papers and speeches, some of which also operate the licensing operation through which those who want to use them must go.

While some use of the speech or parts of it can be lawful without approval — individual teachers, for example, are not challenged when they use the speech in violation of the copyright — the makers of the 2014 film “Selma” were never given permission to use King’s words or life story because they couldn’t get a license, which had been sold to two companies for a movie about King’s life that Steven Spielberg is supposedly going to make.

On summary judgment, the district court framed the issue as “whether the public delivery of Dr. King’s speech … constituted a general publication of the speech so as to place it in the public domain.” After discussing the relevant case law, the district court held that Dr. King’s “performance coupled with such wide and unlimited reproduction and dissemination as occurred concomitant to Dr. King’s speech during the March on Washington can be seen only as a general publication which thrust the speech into the public domain.” Thus, the district court granted CBS’s motion for summary judgment.

On appeal the Court held that a performance, no matter how broad the audience, is not a publication; to hold otherwise would be to upset a long line of precedent. This conclusion is not altered by the fact that the Speech was broadcast live to a broad radio and television audience and was the subject of extensive contemporaneous news coverage.

In the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. v Howard Nelson Ballou Suing for the possession of historic documents relating to King, including handwritten letters from King, transcripts of his speeches, and his writings concerning the 1950′s civil rights movement

The documents were given to Howard Ballous’ mother Maude when she worked for King she has given evidence that she believes the documents were gifts to her and remained as personal belongings to her family ever since.  Unfortunately it is not known whether Dr. King wanted her to hold onto them as an employee, or keep them as gifts?  As Dr. King never made a Will no one really knows what his intention was.

The King heirs crack down on unauthorized commercial exploitation of Dr. King. In the early 1980’s a company was selling plastics busts of Dr. King. Advertising materials for the bust included substantial excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches, and also implied an affiliation with an official organization run by Coretta Scott King.

However during the second quarter of the Super Bowl, an ad from Ram Trucks featuring the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. giving one of his final addresses, “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon delivered exactly 50 years ago from that Super Bowl Sunday. Ram Trucks had obtained approval from  the Martin Luther King Jr. estate. Bernice and the King Centre distanced themselves from the ad.

If Dr. King had left a Will it could have stopped many of these expensive lawsuits. Where a Will isn’t made it leads to fights over personal property.  A Will is an easy way to prevent ongoing court disputes.


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