Why Martin Luther King's 'Dream' Speech Is So Hard to Find Online

King himself once sued to prevent the unauthorized sale of his speech. Today, the publicly given speech is still tightly controlled.
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As Washington gears up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech later this month, one thing might be missing from the celebrations: the speech itself.

A full, unedited video clip of the speech is tougher to find than you might think, because of copyright disputes that date back almost as far as the speech itself.

"We were shocked to find that it was very difficult to find a full copy of Dr. King's speech on YouTube," said Evan Greer, a campaign manager at Fight for the Future, an Internet free-speech advocacy group. In January, the group posted the full-length speech on Vimeo in an act of "civil disobedience" coinciding with Martin Luther King Day. The video was promptly removed for violating Vimeo's terms of service, Greer said, but a version on YouTube has managed to avoid detection and remains up on the site, having accumulated more than 80,000 views.

"When I sat down to make this video, I'm not sure I had ever seen the whole speech," Greer said. "We thought it was incredibly important that any young person be able to hop online and watch this speech ... that is as relevant today as it was when it was written."

Months after the August 1963 March on Washington, King himself sued to prevent the unauthorized sale of his speech, purportedly in an effort to control proceeds and use them to support the civil-rights movement. In 1999, the King family sued CBS after the network produced a video documentary that "used, without authorization, portions of ... King's 'I Have a Dream' speech." A divided Appellate Court, in reversing a lower court ruling, held that the speech was not a "general publication," despite its huge audience and subsequent historic importance. The speech instead qualified as a "limited publication," the court said, because "distribution to the news media, as opposed to the general public, for the purpose of enabling the reporting of a contemporary newsworthy event, is only a limited publication."

The ruling was narrow, and CBS and the King estate settled the case before the lower court could reconsider, leaving the copyright of the speech in a somewhat confusing legal situation. A CBS press release dated July 12, 2000, discusses the agreement that allowed the network to "retain the right to use its footage of the speeches" from the march and license it to others in exchange for an undisclosed contribution to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

In 2009, EMI Publishing cut a deal with the King estate to help ensure that the speech was "accorded the same protection and same right for compensation as other copyrights." EMI was sold in 2011 to a consortium headed by Sony. The King Center did not respond to requests for comment.

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Dustin Volz is a staff correspondent for National Journal.

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