“Free at last!” isn’t free
It’s been noted on this page and elsewhere that today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which has joined the pantheon of great American oratory alongside Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech.
Though the power of King’s words and the breathtaking mastery of their delivery are well understood and appreciated today, it wasn’t always so. The Washington Post has admitted that it, to an extent, blew the story a half-century ago by placing King’s speech farther down in a wrap-up story on the March on Washington. In 1963, the Observer-Reporter consisted of the morning Observer and the evening Reporter, and, in the rally’s aftermath, the Reporter made do with an aerial photo from the wire on an inside page of the throngs at the Lincoln Memorial. The front page of the newspaper was dominated by dispatches from a mine blast in Utah – placement that was understandable given the prominence of the coal industry in this region 50 years ago.
We had considered printing the entire text, or, at least, lengthy excerpts of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on this page today, in the same way that we have rerun the Declaration of Independence or the “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” editorial that appeared in The New York Sun in 1897. However, there’s one notable difference between the Declaration of Independence, “Yes, Virginia…” and the “I Have a Dream” speech – the first two are in the public domain, and can be used by anyone for any purpose, while the text of King’s speech has been placed under copyright control by King’s family. It will not arrive in the public domain until 2038, 75 years after the speech and 70 years after King’s death.
As the magazine Mother Jones noted ruefully last week, that speech, with its soaring “Free at last!” coda “is not free, alas.”
The fact that the speech, in its entirety, is not available for use by anyone and everyone has become a sore point among many educators and historians, who say it should be readily available, free of charge. That King’s heirs have licensed its use in advertisements for Mercedes-Benz and Cingular Wireless has also raised the ire of many of King’s admirers and former colleagues.
Thankfully, however, American copyright law also contains the Fair Use Doctrine, which allows some quotations to be used from a work to illustrate certain points or comment upon it. That being the case, we can appreciate the poetry of King’s hope that “with this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day … And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
The world of 2013 is as different from 1963, in many respects, as 1963 was from 1913. King’s words still retain their inspirational power, nonetheless, and that will almost certainly remain the case in 2063.