Can you copyright a dream – apparently yes

The most famous words spoken by Martin Luther King (‘MLK’) were not featured in Selma a new film about his life.

Apparently the MLK estate licensed the rights of King’s speeches to DreamWorks some time ago with a view that Steven Spielberg would produce any resulting films. This meant that film maker Ava DuVernay did not request permission to use the speeches in Selma as she believed that the rights would have strings attached. Some commentators have suggested that this would have changed the vision of the film as the MLK estate strictly controls the way in which King is portrayed.

Film makers have been in trouble with the MLK estate in the past when CBS refused to pay royalties for using footage of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in its documentary series The 20th Century with Mike Wallace. This came about since if the speech constituted a “general publication” to obtain copyright protection it should have been registered prior to publication.  However, the Court ruled that the speech did not constitute general publication and therefore did not require registration.

Nevertheless, despite not quoting King’s speeches word for word, Selma has proven to be a hit with both the box office and with the critics.