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Copyrighting the Dream: Selling Martin Luther King, Jr.

The King Memorial at night (image by author)

The King Memorial at night (image by author)

When it was unveiled in 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial on Washington D.C.’s National Mall was widely heralded as a fitting artistic, historical, and national recognition of America’s most prominent civil rights advocate.  Like every inch of memorials on the National Mall, the King monument was subjected to a rigorous review process.  Martin Luther King Jr. is a historical figure, but his history is fresh in our collective memory; King evokes some of the most fundamental inequalities in American life; and many Americans have invested profound sentiments in their visions of King that no monument could hope to accommodate.  Monuments aspire to represent symbols in timeless aesthetic form, so King’s representation in a single material form evoked significant discussion:  with King’s installation on the Tidal Basin he became the first Black American situated on the nation’s front porch, ostensibly making a statement about human rights and the color line for the remainder of time.

The most prominent protectors of King’s heritage have been his descendants, who have legal “rights of publicity” to King’s likeness and his words not construed as public performances.  MLK’s visage and voice now pitch the likes of McDonald’s, Mercedes-Benz, and Alcatel with the approval of and payment to his estate.  King’s most famous words, the “I Have a Dream” address delivered in 1963, have been legally defined as a performance delivered to a limited audience:  as such, it is copyrighted by the King Estate and EMI Publishing and available in complete form only when purchased as a DVD.

The King statue stands apart from the "mountain" behing it (image courtesy cooper.gary).

The King statue stands apart from the “mountain” behind it (image courtesy cooper.gary).

King has fallen into an ambiguous position between historical figure and commodified brand.  King’s estate is not necessarily guilty of hawking a world of Martin Luther King, Jr. knick knacks adorned with his image, but they have often zealously controlled his image and words in a way few other historical figures are guarded.  King’s estate aspires to manage his symbolism across a vast range of discourses ranging from hamburger ads to historical scholarship to physical and aesthetic representations of King.  In 1999, for instance, the King estate negotiated a tentative agreement with the Library of Congress to sell King’s papers for $20 million (and a $10 million tax deduction) that King’s son indicated was “substantially below market value.”  That deal fell apart, though, and in 2006 about 7000 of those items were going to be sold at auction before funds were raised to keep them in Atlanta at Morehouse College.