Martin Luther King, Jr., Family Seeks to Cash In on MLK-Obama Items

November 14, 2008

king-obama-tshirts.jpgZealous guardians of his words and his likeness, the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is demanding a share of the proceeds from the sudden wave of T-shirts, posters and other merchandise depicting the civil rights leader alongside Barack Obama.

Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King’s nephew and head of the nonprofit King Center in Atlanta, said the estate is entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees — maybe even millions.

of this is probably putting food on people’s plates. We’re not trying
to stop anybody from legitimately supporting themselves,” he said, “but
we cannot allow our brand to be abused.”

while Obama’s election as the first black president may be the
fulfillment of King’s dream and could yield a big windfall for his
estate, policing his image and actually collecting any fees could prove
to be a legal nightmare because of the great proliferation of
unauthorized King-Obama paraphernalia, much of it sold by street

King’s writings, likeness and
voice are considered intellectual property, and almost any use — from
graduate thesis papers to TV documentaries — are subject to approval by
his estate, now administered by his surviving children, Martin Luther King III, Dexter King and the Rev. Bernice King. (Because Obama is an elected official, his words and image are in the public domain and can be used without permission.)

said he expects to announce deals in the coming weeks to license some
items featuring images of King and Obama, and may sell some in the King
Center bookstore alongside recordings of his speeches, postcards,
calendars, mugs bearing images of King, and other licensed merchandise,
which nets the center about $800,000 annually.

family is protective of how King is depicted, and Farris said any items
that are inconsistent with his uncle’s message and image would not be

Any proceeds from King-Obama
merchandise would also go to the King Center, said Farris, a member of
the estate management team that reviews intellectual property issues.

The family, which refuses to divulge details of its licensing deals, is also discussing how to go after violators.

estate sued CBS over its sale of a video documentary that used excerpts
of his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. An appeals court ruled in 1999
that the speech was covered by copyright and was not public domain, but
the estate ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

are probably one of the most careful, concerned and on-top-of-it groups
of image protectors I’ve ever met,” said Philippa Loengard, assistant
director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at
Columbia University.

Realizing the
value of his ideas, King himself copyrighted several of his speeches
during his lifetime. After he died, that duty fell to his widow,
Coretta, and, since her death in 2006, to their children. Some scholars
have complained about the family’s aggressive pursuit of moneymaking

But the Kings have never
faced a challenge quite as big as this. Vendors across the country have
capitalized on connecting Obama to King, mostly without permission and
without a penny of the proceeds going to his estate.

“We realize the historic nature of events surrounding President-elect
Obama and we are seeking an elegant solution to address the commercial
use of Dr. King’s image in connection with our newly elected
president,” Dexter King said in a statement.

the siblings already battling in court over whether to publish their
mother’s diaries, it could be difficult for them to reach a consensus.

Jock Smith, an attorney for Bernice King and Martin Luther King III,
warned that any action Dexter King takes without their approval would
be “an illegal action not sanctioned by the corporation.”

accepted the Democratic nomination for president on the 45th
anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the nation’s first
black president will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, the day after the federal holiday created to honor King.

the past, the King estate has relied on concerned citizens to blow the
whistle on vendors and manufacturers, who then get a cease-and-desist
letter. If that fails, the estate sues.

“If you make a dollar, we should make a dime,” Farris said. “That’s not happening now.”

Street vendors and cousins Francis Sarr and Michael Silva said
they are not sure whether anyone licensed the T-shirts for sale at
their downtown Atlanta souvenir stand, including one featuring images
of King and Obama and the words, “I HAVE A DREAM … THAT CHANGE IS

But they said they would be happy to contribute a portion of the proceeds to the King estate.

“By right, they definitely deserve something from it and should
give their consent to sell it,” Silva said. “I guess everyone is trying
to cash in.”

Source: AP

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