As millions of netizens visit the home pages of Google, Yahoo, and Hulu on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, his famous “I Have a Dream” Speech will be conspicuously absent. The audio, video, and text remain under copyright from the King family estate, which has been aggressively litigious against organizations that publish the speech without paying a fee.
It sued USA Today in 1990 for publishing the full text, and it’s the reason why last year’s Selma did not include it in the movie. You can find illegally published versions on YouTube, but I would not dare post it in this article.
To this day, the wildly innovative Internet masses cannot apply their creativity to one of the most inspiring moments in American history. So Google and others celebrate his legacy by dancing around his famous speech, with murals or other tributes.
His family rarely addresses the issue, but on Google Books you can read a brief mention from one of his sons: “There are still forces out there that do not want what’s best for Dad’s legacy, or for my family to be in any way comfortable; they want to take everything away.”
So, when we hear about Congress taking up the issue of copyright, our eyes should not glaze over. The length of copyright protection creates odd incentives that pits family members of inventors against society. The first copyright law in 1790 extended protection for 14 years. Today, copyright can be extended over 50 years.
Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), the new Chairman of the House Intellectual Property Subcommittee, told me last week that he expects that the new Congress will make copyright reform a priority. The last major reform happened in 2011 with the America Invents Act. But the political divided Congress did not tackle a number of ongoing issues, including patent trolls and the length of copyright.
Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, they might be able to address some of the most glaring problems with intellectual property law.