Regarding using the Martin Luther King Jr.  "I have a dream" speech in a commercial context:

This may not technically be in the Public Domain. For sure, the estate of MLK would like to collect royalties for use of his speech. See:,_Jr.,_Inc._v._CBS,_Inc.

Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc. (194 F.3d 1211 (11th Cir. 1999)) is a United States court case that involved a longstanding dispute about the public domain copyright status of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous speech, known by the key phrase I have a dream, originally delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. The court ruled that the speech was actually a performance and is, like other performances such as plays and CBS's own television shows, covered by copyright, and is not in the public domain. The case was never finally decided as the two sides ultimately settled the matter out of court.

The facts

The facts of the underlying dispute are as follows: when King made his speech publicly to a large audience both live and televised it had not been submitted to the Register of Copyright to obtain federal copyright protection. Under state law, common law copyright only subsisted before publication of the work, so, it was argued that the work had been published to the general public when he gave the speech with extensive media coverage and by so doing the speech entered the public domain and could be freely copied and distributed by third parties. However, Dr. King did register the work the next month as being an unpublished work and after his death his estate filed this lawsuit in order to enforce the copyright.

The ruling

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the public performance of his speech did not constitute "general publication" and thus by giving this speech in public he did not forfeit his copyright. Thus, King's estate is able to require a license fee for redistribution of the speech, whether in a television program, a history book, a dramatic re-enactment, or otherwise.

Legal analysis

The case is analyzed under the previous copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1909 ("1909 Act"), rather than theCopyright Act of 1976 ("1976 Act") as the previous act was in force when the facts arose. Under the 1909 statute common law copyright subsisted until a work was published. As the 1909 Act did not comply with the automatic protection of the Berne Convention, statutory copyright could only be obtained by completing the necessary formalities, i.e. by registering the work with the Registrar of Copyrights in Washington, D.C.. CBS argued that Dr. King had not complied with the statute, and thus, by performing the work, he essentially granted it to the public domain. His estate argued to the contrary that the work had never been published at the time of its initial performance by Dr. King and thus retained common law copyright. The public performance of the work did not constitute a "general publication" of the work but rather was a "limited publication" that did not divest common law rights.

General v. limited publication

There are two ways in which a general publication may occur. First, a general publication occurs if tangible copies of the work are distributed to the general public in such a manner as allows the public to exercise dominion and control over the work. Second, a general publication may occur if the work is exhibited or displayed in such a manner as to permit unrestricted copying by the general public.

Distribution to the news media

Case law also shows that distribution to the news media, as opposed to the general public, for the purpose of enabling the reporting of a contemporary newsworthy event, is only a limited publication.[1] (

From the judgment of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals:

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. We follow the above cited case law indicating that release to the news media for contemporary coverage of a newsworthy event is only a limited publication.

Concurring reasons

The main judgment was given by Chief Judge Anderson, and Senior Circuit Judges Roney, and Cook. Judge Cook gave separate concurring reasons. He does not accept the limited v. general publication rule as being determinative; his thinking centers on the fact that no tangible copy without a copyright notice (which was required by the law at that time) was distributed before the registration of the work. This fact taken together with the oral speech being distributed to the media determines that the copyright was not put into the public domain.


The ruling that the copyright was in force meant that the case was remanded to the circuit court and the Estate's lawsuit against CBS could proceed. CBS and the King Estate reached a settlement before proceeding further in the courts.[2] (