The new movie Selma, a sweeping biopic chronicling the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., did not use any of King’s actual words from his speeches. Why not? Because the corporation that owns the rights to those speeches, King, Inc., which is run by King’s surviving family, zealously guards those actual words like a dragon hoarding gold. Actual gold, as it turns out.
King, Inc. charges exorbitant royalties for the use of words from King’s speeches. The iconic “I have a dream” speech has become something of a cash cow for King, Inc.
. . . Clarence Jones, who was a personal attorney and speechwriter for King, was told by attorneys from King, Inc., that if he wanted to use the full speech in his book Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation, he would have to pay $20,000.
“If it wasn’t for me copyrighting that speech, the King children wouldn’t today own their biggest moneymaker,” Jones complained. He said his small publisher feared a lawsuit, so he as the author had to indemnify them from any costs of such a suit. He then dared King family lawyers to sue the man who helped write “I have a dream.” They chose not to.
But in most other cases, they have sued. And no one has been exempt. Anyone who might want to use King’s words, likeness, etc. have to go through King, Inc. first. And this isn’t just a case of King’s family wanting to make sure King’s legacy is not tarnished. King, Inc. could probably very easily collaborate with MLK memorial-makers, historians, and documentarians to make sure that MLK’s legacy is secure—without requiring payment.
It is the money, and the huge amounts of it, that indicate that King, Inc. is less interested in promoting and protecting King’s message and more interested in profiting off of it. Which is, quite frankly, despicable. King’s legacy doesn’t belong to King, Inc. any more than any famous person’s legacy belongs to his blood relations. King’s speeches and legacy belong to America and to history.
Ironically, the very means King, Inc. is using to purportedly protect King’s legacy is in direct contradiction to it. And it may turn out that the draconian tactics of King, Inc. is only encouraging people, like the film makers of Selma, to make up their own words to represent King.