The estate of Martin Luther King Jr. sued CBS today for copyright infringement--and created a case that will pit the rights of the news media against the rights of a family to control the legacy of an historic figure.

King's immortal "I Have a Dream" speech was covered as a news event by CBS when he delivered it before 250,000 people in Washington in 1963. Shortly after, King copyrighted the speech and the copyright passed on to his heirs. Now, CBS is selling its video of the speech for $30 as part of a series of documentary videotapes, 20th Century with Mike Wallace.

Intellectual Properties Management, the firm which oversees the financial affairs of the estate, told the network it should pay royalties for using a copyrighted work, says the firm's president, Phillip Jones.

CBS refused on the grounds that, as network news president Andrew Heyward said in a statement today, "We believe...that we are not...required to seek anyone's permission to provide to the public news material we have gathered about events central to the political and social life of this country." CBS asserted that it was protected by the First Amendment and indeed by the copyright laws protecting its own footage.

But the family's representatives insist that coverage of a news event doesn't give a news organization a perpetual right to copyrighted material. Jones says that the estate won a judgment against USA Today for printing the speech in 1994 on just that argument (at posting time, we couldn't independently verify the facts of that case). "Just because a work was created in public, doesn't mean it's in the public domain," Jones said.

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