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January 7, 2018 » 8:02 am

Copyright and the Evolution and Availability of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Speeches

Last week, I wrote a blog post for Faster Than 20 where I quoted some lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1961 commencement speech at Lincoln University. I first heard this and many others last summer on Spotify, which has a comprehensive playlist of King’s speeches.

The Lincoln University one grabbed me the most, and when I decided to revisit it last week, I searched for a transcription and was surprised that I couldn’t find one. I found a few scanned versions, but no transcriptions.

At first, that made me wonder about the copyright status of his speeches. As suspected, the King estate keeps tight hold over who and how his speeches get shared (as is its right). For example, it gave an exclusive film license to DreamWorks for an upcoming Steven Spielberg biopic, which meant that Ava DuVernay had to paraphrase his speeches for her movie, Selma.

Because I couldn’t find an existing transcript, I went through the trouble of transcribing one of the scanned versions for my own use. I also wondered whether some choice quotes from that speech were available anywhere. If not, I figured I could contribute some.

His Wikiquote page did not reference this particular speech, but it already had several of the quotes I wanted to share. Many of them, for example, appeared in his 1965 sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Not surprisingly, King reused parts of many speeches. It was fascinating to see how some of them evolved over time. I also think it’s fascinating to wonder how certain speeches became more prominent and others did not. I think his Lincoln University speech, for example, is far more powerful than the version he gave four years later at Temple Israel of Hollywood, but the latter is much easier to find.

I think this is unfortunate, but I’m glad that audio recordings of that speech (which is the best way to enjoy his speeches anyway) are more readily available:

Photo by Dick DeMarsico / New York World Telegram & Sun (November 6, 1964). From Wikimedia Commons.

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