Public Holiday for a Private Individual

On January 15, 2015, eighty-six years after the birth of Martin Luther King, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced that Selma, a film about MLK, was nominated for the Best Picture of 2014.

I have not yet seen this film, but I’ve been preoccupied with the coverage of how the film features speeches that sound like ones King delivered when, in fact, those were not King’s actual words. The film’s director Ava DuVernay had to rewrite all of the speeches King’s character delivers because she could not secure the rights to King’s actual speeches for her film. She discusses this with PBS’s Gwen Iffil.

One of the reasons that the speeches are not available for film is because Dreamworks and Steven Spielberg own those rights. Exclusively. While a public person, such an elected official, cannot copyright their speeches, a private individual can. According to DuVernay in an interview with KCRW’s The Business, Martin Luther King, Jr. is considered the latter and can exercise copyright over those speeches.

Today, we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday. Schools, government offices, and banks are closed in observance. I vaguely remember when we started to observe this day when I was in fifth grade. It was a good age to learn about King, in particular, and about the Civil Rights movement, in general. It would forever shape my outlook on civil rights and equality. To that young school kid, King became a public hero for all of us through that having a holiday.

I know copyright laws are often ridiculous, but I still can’t understand how someone whose life we honor through a public holiday can be considered a private individual. King belongs to all of us.1

  1. Speaking of public resources that belong to all of us, you can visit any National Parks site for free on Martin Luther King Day. 

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