Activists use MLK’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech to pick copyright fight

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, January 21, 2013 12:33 EDT
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The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo: Brandon Bourdages / Shutterstock.com.
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Hoping to highlight what they see as problems with America’s copyright system, a group of activists called Fight for the Future published a copy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech to Vimeo over the weekend with the express intent of picking a fight, urging people to share the copyrighted work without regard for the law.

The video was deleted by Vimeo within hours of being published, due to a copyright claim by British record label EMI — giving the activists exactly what they needed.

“We felt that Dr. King’s message, his calls for racial justice, is too important to be censored by a broken copyright system,” Evan Greer, campaign manager of Fight for the Future, explained to Raw Story. “We have a long way to go when a video like this, which is clearly free speech and a political statement, was taken down and nobody could access it for almost an entire day before we got it back online.”

The speech has long been copyrighted as a limited performance, which MLK originally intended to help fund the civil rights movement. However, in the years after his death, King’s family sought to monetize his speech and writings through licensing agreements. That’s how EMI acquired the copyright to “I Have A Dream” in 2009, thinking they could license it to documentary filmmakers and musicians.

Like most major publishers, EMI relies on an automated system that spots their copyrighted works online and sends takedown requests under the Digital Milinneum Copyright Act (DMCA) — a law critics say is outdated and easily abused. Despite the system’s bugs, which have previously popped up in the most unfortunate of situations, it worked exactly as intended on Friday and succeeded in removing King’s speech. On the flip side, it also succeeded in putting Fight for the Future back in the headlines.

The group made its name helping to organize last year’s day-long Internet work stoppage protest, which successfully torpedoed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) exactly one year before the King video was censored. Apart from demonstrating the broken nature of the copyright system, Fight for the Future also hoped to use the speech to highlight January 18 as “Internet Freedom Day” and remind supporters of what almost came to be.

“If SOPA had passed, we wouldn’t just be talking about our video being taken down,” Greer said. “We could have been facing felony charges for publishing copyrighted content. Whole websites could have been taken down just for linking to it. We got a lot of coverage on this video — Al Jazeera was linking to us, The Washington Post was also linking to us — those websites could have been shut down just for posting a link to copyrighted content.”

Greer added that even though activists successfully stopped SOPA, “as we know from our video being taken down, there’s still a lot of work to do to fix this system and keep the Internet free and open for political expression.”

This video was published to YouTube on January 18, 2013.


Disclosure: The Raw Story‘s management participated in the SOPA work-stoppage protest.

Photo: Brandon Bourdages / Shutterstock.com.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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