Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. v CBS, Inc.
194 F.3d 1211 (11th Cir. 1999)

  • King gave a famous speech that was widely reported in the newspapers and broadcast on radio and television.
    • Copies of the speech were given to members of the press.
  • One month after he gave the speech, King secured a copyright under the Copyright Act of 1909. He immediately sued to enjoin unauthorized sale of recordings of the speech.
  • Twenty years later, a tv station, CBS, made a documentary about King and used the video they recorded of King's speech. King's estate sued for copyright infringement.
    • CBS argued that under the Copyright Act of 1909, if you publish a work without filing for a copyright first, you lose protection of that work. Since King waited a month to file, he missed his chance.
  • The Trial Court found for CBS. King appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that since the speech had "wide an unlimited reproduction and dissemination" concomitant to the speech, it must be considered public domain.
  • The Appellate Court reversed.
    • The Court noted that under the Copyright Act of 1909, an author received a common-law copyright protection at the time of creation. However, when general publication occurred, the author forfeited his work to the public domain unless he converted his common-law copyright into a Federal statutory copyright.
      • The term general publication was defined as "when a work was made available to members of the public at large without regard to their identity or what they intended to do with the work."
        • As opposed to limited publication, where you just pass it around to a few friends.
    • The Court found that delivering the speech was not a general publication.
      • The Court found that a general publication only occurs if tangible copies are distributed, or if the work is exhibited in a manner to permit unrestricted copying.
      • The Court looked to case law and found that distribution to the news media does not count as general publication.
        • See Public Affairs Assoc., Inc. v. Rickover (284 F.2d 262 (1960)).
      • The Court found that a public performance of a work does not constitute publication.
  • Note that under the modern law (the Copyright Act of 1976), an author gets a copyright automatically, they don't have to file anything.