On wishing I knew then what I know now

We were pleased in last week’s Spirit of Jefferson to profile Bettye Webb-Hayes, who not only participated in the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — the 50th anniversary of which we commemorate this year — but she also met Martin Luther King Jr. when she was a small girl and sang for him at Stewart Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Macon, Ga.

Betty’s story was accompanied on Page A7 with our transcription of the full text of the speech King gave that day in Washington D.C. And boy was that a boo-boo. King’s speech, it turns out, is copyrighted and the exclusive rights to its broadcast and publication are owned by his family.

Here’s how our mistake happened.

As Christine Miller Ford was assembling the layout for the B1 Life page, she hit on the idea of floating a passage of King’s speech above the archival picture of King giving his speech, lending the appearance almost of a word balloon. As we talked about it, I suggested doing that even one better — running the entire speech on our Opinion page.

The Spirit’s Opinion page has quickly become one of my favorites to cobble together each week; it’s the page where Jefferson County and Panhandle residents are given free rein to comment on the topics of the day. It’s there that Elliot Simon’s column runs nearly every week, and the page is also a frequent home to commentary by Jefferson County residents Sean O’Leary and Bob O’Connor. I thought the transcript of King’s speech would be a perfect fit as part of the Spirit’s acknowledgment of its 50th anniversary.

But here’s what I didn’t know. In the days immediately after giving the speech at the now-historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King sought and received copyright protection for it, apparently to head off an effort by 20th Century Fox to publish it. And since his death, King’s family has kept the rights to the speech closely guarded, suing for its unauthorized broadcast and also charging sometimes hefty fees to reproduce it. USA Today paid a $10,000 settlement after publishing the speech without the family’s permission.

There are some instances when the reproduction of the speech is allowable — as an educational tool, for instance. But when the media reprints the speech, arguing for the fair use exception is a little thornier.

In his own thoughts on the use of the speech, Hampshire Review Managing Editor Jim King reminds readers of the trouble The Nation magazine got into after publishing a lengthy excerpt from former President Gerald Ford’s memoirs. The Nation argued fair use but the U.S. Supreme Court held, I think correctly, that by printing the excerpts it cut into what was most exceptional (read: newsworthy) about it.

While I think there are some distinctions to be drawn between publishing without permission Ford’s newly published memoirs and King’s historical speech — I would argue that the faithful reproduction of the speech by the media as an instructional tool should constitute fair use — I am sensitive to the family’s stated need to keep it away from Madison Avenue-types. The speech should never be debased by politicians as part of an election campaign, nor should it be used to hawk pillowcases. At the same time, it is singularly one of the most significant speeches in American history; perhaps only President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is more memorable.

That said, the Spirit would not have knowingly printed the speech without the King family’s permission. I write this as both a public service announcement on behalf of the speech as well as an extraordinarily humble mea culpa.


— Robert Snyder


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