In a new article for Forbes, Larry Iser examines the announcement of a forthcoming Martin Luther King Jr. biopic—a collaboration between Chris Rock, Steven Spielberg, and Universal Pictures—as well as the legal actions that were necessary to set such a historic project into motion.
The article pays special attention to the care that Dr. King took to protect the rights to his historic legacy while he was still alive. In what Larry describes as a “totally appropriate” legal move, Dr. King copyrighted his famous speeches and actively enforced those copyrights, preventing others from selling or distributing his oratory works. Today, no one may use Dr. King’s speeches for film, television, or any other purpose, without first obtaining a license from his estate. The executors of the Estate, Dr. King’s children Bernice, Dexter, and Martin, have been extremely selective about granting these licenses, leading to the scarcity of films about Dr. King’s life, among other limited projects. The Estate has also spent significant energy guarding against non-licensed uses, mirroring Dr. King’s approach.
Thus, it is noteworthy that in 2009 Steven Spielberg and his company DreamWorksSKG acquired a license to use Dr. King’s copyrighted speeches in a film, in addition to obtaining the film rights to Dr. King’s life (life rights), from the Estate. Though the 2009 project was eventually canceled, Spielberg wisely held onto the copyright and life rights licenses. Now, more than a decade later, Universal Pictures has optioned rights to adapt Jonathan Eig’s biography King: A Life, and will join with Spielberg and Rock to bring what is being heralded as a “definitive work” to the big screen. As Larry puts it, this “could only be accomplished with the valuable rights obtained from Dr. King’s heirs.”
To read the full article, click below.