On Presidents, Copyright and a King

As we all know, today was the ceremonial inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President (although the official one was yesterday). Many have pointed out how fitting that the inaugural of our first African American President would occur on the day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.   But while Mr. Obama took the oath of office on one of Dr. King’s personal bibles and alluded to his ideals, the President did not choose to quote Dr. King as he did the Declaration of Independence.

And what if someone wanted to make an artistic statement quoting speeches by President Obama or Dr. King? Anyone who may be inspired to incorporate any of President Obama’s speech it into a musical or other creative work should not have any difficulty doing so. Section 105 of the Copyright Act states  “[c]opyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government.” Section 101 defines a “work of the United States Government” as “ a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.”  Certainly, the President is an officer of the United States Government. And while the  Constitution doesn’t require the President to deliver an inaugural address (unlike the State of the Union address), every President since Washington has done so.

However, many would be surprised that Dr. King’s very publicly delivered “I Have a Dream” speech is protected by copyright and has been registered in the U.S. Copyright Office. And while Dr. King, like President Obama, was a public figure who delivered many noteworthy speeches, he was not a government officer or employee. As with every other private citizen, Dr. King (or his estate) was entitled to obtain copyright protection for the fruits of his creative labors.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the President chose not to quote Dr. King because of copyright considerations.  A small quotation, along the lines of what Mr. Obama used from the Declaration of Independence would undoubtedly have constituted fair use.  But it would be a different matter altogether if someone wanted to incorporate Dr. King’s speech in musical composition or other artistic work.

And while quoting from most government documents probably won’t make for great artistic achievement (although John Adams did try with “Doctor Atomic”), some Presidential utterances are worth remembering.   So, feel free to liberally quote President Obama’s inaugural address – or those of Presidents Reagan or either Bush if you’re so politically inclined (although you may still need to get permission for any audio or video recordings of them), but be careful  when dealing with the public speeches of private citizens.  If you want to use portions of the “I Have a Dream” speech or any of Dr. King’s other well-known (and copyrighted) works, in your own creative endeavors you will probably need to obtain permission – a topic I’ve previously written about.