Thursday, May 21, 2009

Spielberg, King and copyright

It seems that the deal Steven Spielberg has just signed to produce a film about Martin Luther King is to be challenged by two of King's children.
"The offspring of the late civil rights leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the struggle against racial segregation, are embroiled in an ugly dispute over plans for a Steven Spielberg film celebrating his life, times and legacy as a modern American icon.

In a deal announced this week, the famous director's production company, Dreamworks, became the first film-makers to acquire rights to King's speeches, books and back catalogue of intellectual property, including the famous speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 "march on Washington"...

The news sparked huge excitement since, despite the fact that King is one of the greatest public speakers of the 20th century, no Hollywood film-maker has ever been granted permission to being his famous speeches to the big screen...

That was then. Unfortunately, less than 24 hours after the Oscar-winning director made his bullish statement, it emerged that two of King's three surviving children are threatening to sue because the lucrative film deal was brokered without either their knowledge or blessing."

It is a real shame that King's teachings don't get much wider distribution due to the long running saga of disputes over the rights to his speeches and writings. A hugely valuable documentary series on the US civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize, was pulled from circulation for many years because the complex collection of rights for photographs, music and film clips, and writings had expired. It has got to be seriously damaging to our understanding of important historical developments if we cannot tell the story without getting hopelessly entangled in intellectual property rights issues. That one fact alone should be enough to convince us that the term of copyright is just too long. 14 years renewable for another 14 anyone...? I'd even go for a nice round 25 if we couldn't do a deal on the 14 but either way King's teachings would be in the public domain; although the Eyes on the Prize producers might have to wait a few more years to clear the rights hurdles.

No comments: