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  • Writer's pictureDenny Esford

Selma: How Copyrights Can Create Inaccuracies

The recent announcement of Oscar nominations has the films up for Best Picture entering everyday conversations. The buzz surrounding the movies varies, but one of the most talked about films is Selma, the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. While there is some controversy surrounding the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson, there are legal issues being overlooked. In particular the speeches of Dr. King. Why didn’t David Oyelowo give King’s entire speech? The answer may surprise you.

Copyright law is not something most audience members think about while viewing a movie. However, copyright is in fact to blame for some of the inaccuracies in Selma. The estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. is notorious for their tough position on copyrights, finding many reasons to sue over the years, including publishing the entirety of King’s I Have A Dream speech and airing clips of his speeches on TV without permission of the King estate, which now owns the subject copyrights. Selma is another film that has fallen victim to the estate’s protective ways.

While the estate cites control over King’s image and maximum revenue as their reasons for such measures, the still seems public to lose. Holding the copyright, it is true, is reason enough for the estate to sue those who use King’s works publicly, or arrange licenses. But in the case of public education, or commemoration of King, it would make much more sense for his works to be displayed in full. In Selma, for example, the writers had to paraphrase King’s speeches throughout the film because the estate had already exclusively licensed them to DreamWorks and Warner Bros.

These issues bring the issue of the length of the copyright term back into focus. King’s speeches are all protected for the length of his life plus 70 years, so they will not enter the public domain until 2039. While some creative works benefit financially from such long protection, it does not seem necessary in King’s case. He did not write the speeches for economic gain, but rather to share his dream with the people and inspire change. So, is the estate being too strict with the copyrights it holds? It would be interesting to hear what audiences had to say about that after seeing Selma and noticing the changes it was forced to make.

Congress could (but probably won’t anytime soon) consider mandatory non-exclusive performance licensing like it did for the music industry. A songwriter collects a mandatory fee (via the organizations BMI and ASCAP) for a performance if his/her song. Likewise, a band performing its particular version of a song enjoys a separate performance copyright and receives a fee (along with the song’s author) when a cover band played the same version at your local bar last weekend. Perhaps a similar scheme better balances the rights of the copyright owner with the public interest.

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