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
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
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.
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
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
See Public Affairs
Assoc., Inc. v. Rickover (284 F.2d
The Court found that a public
performance of a work does not
Note that under the modern law
(the Copyright Act of 1976), an
author gets a copyright automatically, they don't have to file anything.