MLK’s reliance on “remix” is well-documented; without a strong public domain, where will that leave the next MLK?

I copied and slightly reworded the title of this post from Joshua Judson Rosen; the body draws heavily from a conversation started by Rosen. Today is .

People have noted for years that the King estate does their best to lock up and profit from his works. I even had a post that touched on this indirectly in 2004 (it appears that since then Eyes on the Prize has been re-aired and DVDs sold, result of an $850,000 grant to acquire the necessary licenses). But the King estate is simply doing what most heirs would do with an uninsured creative legacy. If societal governance of the knowledge commons were anything close to reasonable, all King’s works would now be in the public domain.

Perhaps ironically (but only if one cannot distinguish between King and his estate, and between citation and copyright restrictions), in his academic writing King was a very poor provider of intellectual provenance — in that context, he plagiarized:

I might conclude that none of this was fatal for King’s career as a preacher and powerful public speaker. Had he pursued an academic career, his heavy reliance on the authorities, often without citing them, could have been fatal. But in preaching, perhaps even in most public speech, genuine originality is more often fatal. A congregation, even a public audience, expects to hear and responds to the word once delivered to the fathers [and mothers]. It is the familiar that resonates with us. The original sounds alien and tends to alienate. The familiar, especially the familiar that appeals to the best in us, is what we long to hear. So,”I Have A Dream” was no new vision; it was a recension, quite literally, of his own “An American Dream.” And that dream, as we know, already had a long history. King’s vision was, perhaps, more inclusive than earlier dreams, but it appealed to us because we already believed it.

Indeed, far more interesting is the ubiquity of borrowing in King’s profession. On preachers borrowing liberally from each other and any other available source, listen to this week’s installment of WYNC On the Media, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Public Imagination (about 15 minutes).

I did not know this about sermons, but upon hearing, it is completely unsurprising. But now I have questions:

  • Do preachers now continue to borrow as heavily and as liberally as they did in King’s day and before? What about public speakers generally?
  • Should preaching be added to magic, fashion, food, and comedy as examples of professions relying heavily on borrowing, and not so much on censorship?
  • The development of King’s speeches, and of preacher’s sermons* generally, highlight that in some contexts borrowing without citation is valuable, nevermind that it would be called plagiarism in other contexts. Should schools teach how to be a great artist in some classes? Doing so might help their anti-plagiarism rhetoric sink in better, as it would then appear contextually appropriate, rather than fanatic.

* Daniel Dennet approvingly says that TED talks are secular sermons, pinpointing another reason I find them annoying (for being sermons, not for being secular). But I don’t want to censor any sermons.

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