By restricting media from showing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in its entirety, the King estate may be protecting this speech from the vagaries of cultural transmission. At least this seems to me an intriguing possibility.
I post this on the 50th anniversary of the speech, an anniversary that is justifiably enjoying heavy news coverage. Merely through casual exposure to media, by noon today I have seen or heard King speak the phrase “I have a dream” at least six times.
But I haven’t heard much more than these few words. The King estate zealously guards the copyright to video and audio of the speech. Media use only short clips from the speech, to avoid copyright infringement, a situation that many news organizations and copyright experts find problematic (see here and here).
For news producers, the decision about which clip to extract is easy: go with "I have a dream" as used in one of the eight sentences that King begins with this phrase. The consensus choice is "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
If the King estate were to allow unrestricted use of the video, the speech would be more likely to be studied in schools wherever history, social studies, or rhetoric are taught. It would be more likely to be seen in its entirety around the world on the Internet. However, ready availability of the entire speech may increase the risk of editing as successive generations are exposed to the speech in educational and other settings. Some people may come to focus on parts of the speech that do not involve "I have a dream." Others may become familiar with the speech through re-mixes of sorts created by Internet communities who appropriate various segments of the speech. After several generations, we might have varied and relatively uncertain notions of what King said in 1963. I imagine a citizen in 2063 pressed to specify what King is best known for saying. The citizen might respond, uncertainly, “I think King said something along the lines of ‘I have a hope that people of all races will one day get along with one another?’.”
Media thrive on soundbites, and King’s “I have a dream” sentences are perfect soundbites. Heavy repetition of a short, memorable phrase helps ensure that the phrase will be transmitted with high fidelity across generations.
I’m underestimating the power of King’s speech, if only to make a point about unintended consequences of copyright restrictions. The phrase “I have a dream” will likely endure even if recordings of the speech were to be placed in the public domain. The phrase is already firmly enshrined as one of America’s most notable phrases. King’s remarkably effective use of dream, as a word and concept, ensures high-fidelity transmission. To announce that one has had a dream is a way to command attention, to hold the stage. It seems likely that for thousands of years sages to whom people may look for moral guidance have commanded attention by promising to reveal to the community what dreams have revealed to the sage. We’re unlikely soon, and hopefully never, to misremember what King said.