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Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v. CBS, Inc. - 194 F.3d 1211 (11th Cir. 1999)


The test of general publication is whether the exhibition of the work to the public is under such conditions as to show dedication without reservation of rights or only the right to view and inspect it without more.


On the afternoon of August 28, 1963, during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a memorable speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The Speech contained the famous utterance, “I have a dream…,”which became symbolic of the civil rights movement. The SCLC had sought out wide press coverage of the March and the Speech, and these efforts were successful; 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. On September 30, 1963, approximately one 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 2, 1963. Almost immediately thereafter, Dr. King filed suit in the Southern District of New York to enjoin the unauthorized sale of recordings of the Speech and won a preliminary injunction on December 13, 1963. For the next 20 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, CBS entered into a contract with the Arts & Entertainment Network to produce a historical documentary series entitled "The 20th Century with Mike Wallace." One segment was devoted to "Martin Luther King, Jr. and The March on Washington." That episode contained material filmed by CBS during the March and extensive footage 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 instant litigation ensued. 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 that thrust the speech into the public domain. Thus, the district court granted CBS’s motion for summary judgment. The Estate appealed.


Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's "I have a Dream" speech delivered in such a manner that the public was given dominion or control over it, thereby divesting ithe Estate of its copyright?




The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the CBS has not demonstrated beyond any genuine issue of material fact that Dr. King, simply through his oral delivery of the Speech, engaged in a general publication making the Speech "available to members of the public at large without regard to their identity or what they intended to do with the work." According to the Court, a performance, no matter how broad the audience, was not a publication; to hold otherwise would be to upset a long line of precedent. The conclusion was 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. Because there exist genuine issues of material fact as to whether a general publication occurred, the Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for CBS.

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