Who Owns the Image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

As Barack Obama became a gale-force cultural phenomenon this year, his popularity naturally gave rise to a small industry of street vendors selling t-shirts, buttons and posters. Many of these items linked Obama to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with such sentiments as “The Dream is Now!” and conjoined images of Obama and King.

Do such memorabilia represent the expressions of a free society — or the theft of privately owned intellectual property? The children of Dr. King believe the latter. They claim copyrights in Dr. King’s name and image, and argue that the King estate should reap any revenues derived from the commercial use of them. “We do feel that if somebody’s out there making a dollar, we should make a dime,” said Isaac Newton Farris, Jr., who is Dr. King’s nephew and the president of the King Center in Atlanta. This is only the latest in a long line of similar incidents.

The logic of “intellectual property” as it intersects with democratic culture is playing itself out in absurd ways — again. The presumption is that any shared culture experience or image should be capable of being “assetized” and converted into money. The idea of preserving public access to a shared and venerated symbol, and treating him as part of the cultural commons available to all, is dismissed. Or more accurately, it isn’t really discussed. We don’t really have the vocabulary for talking intelligently about our shared “ownership” of King. And so property-speak prevails.

The King estate high-mindedly insists that it doesn’t really care about money; it only wants to protect the reputation of Dr. King. And yet claiming a private property right in Dr. King hardly enhances his reputation. It is tantamount to saying that the market value for Dr. King’s memory (i.e, the licensing fee) trumps everyone else’s claims on Dr. King’s memory. It is a show of contempt for the millions who marched with and supported Dr. King, and who now celebrate his life and values.

Does the King estate also want American schools and town governments to pony up for the right to invoke Dr. King’s image and words on his birthday? Or is that a freebie — a loss-leader giveaway that the estate is graciously conceding to us?

If we’re going to get into the property-speak, perhaps we should ask, who’s free riding on whom? The only reason that the King estate might make any money in this instance is because Barack Obama ran for president, making campaign-related merchandise marketable. Perhaps the King estate should pay some money to the Obama campaign for re-introducing the “King brand,” as the marketers might put it.

Come to think of it, doesn’t the American government deserve some payment from the King estate for subsidizing the value of its brand by mandating a national holiday? Aren’t the American people already “paying for” the value of the King estate’s “intellectual property”?

This is the sad and silly logic of copyright and trademark run amok. A democratic culture is more than a market of intellectual properties. If Dr. King’s name and image cannot be used by the American people for whatever purpose, but is instead to be controlled as a marketable asset — to be skillfully deployed to generate as much money as possible for a private estate (engaged in worthy endeavors, of course!) — then we are in worse shape than I had imagined. I have a deep faith, however, that someday, somehow, we shall overcome.