Copyright lawyer Jonathan Band highlights another important reason for Selma‘s diversions from history:
[D]irector Ava DuVernay may well have taken more license than artistically necessary in the confrontational scenes between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson. But inaccuracies in other significant parts of the film were forced upon DuVernay by copyright law. The film’s numerous scenes of King delivering powerful speeches regarding civil rights all had to be paraphrased, because the MLK estate has already licensed the film rights in those speeches to DreamWorks and Warner Bros., for an MLK biopic Steven Spielberg is slated to produce.
The litigious MLK estate, controlled now by King’s descendants, has a long history of employing copyright to restrict the use of King’s speeches. The estate appears to have two objectives: maximize revenue and control King’s image.
Let freedom ring? King, and now his estate, have the copyright because he was never a government official, in which case his speeches would have been part of the public domain. Also, as Band bemoans, “thanks to aggressive lobbying by publishers, the estates of authors and, more recently, the motion picture studios, Congress has repeatedly extended the copyright term”:
The extensions have always been retroactive, applying to works already in existence. Thus, King’s speeches and other writings will not enter the public domain until 70 years after his death: January 1, 2039. In Congress’ rush to please copyright owners, it has lost sight of the balance the founders intended. A term of protection of “life plus 70” grossly exceeds the economic incentive any author needs to create a work while constraining the ability of new artists to build on the original.
Meanwhile, a reader react to our big roundup on the film:
I believe Yglesias is absolutely right about too many Hollywood movies portraying the “hero” as the white person in the story. But then Hollywood has always been pretty awful when it comes to race (in more recent decades more out of incompetence or fear of alienating white audiences than actual racism). But I also feel Yglesias misses what LBJ defenders are upset about: the persistently inaccurate and sometimes downright malicious portrayal of LBJ himself. So many movies that portray this time period show JFK as a fully enlightened and enthusiastic supporter of Civil Rights and LBJ as a redneck rube. Of course, if one knows the actual history, they would know better, but how many people really know enough about the subject? Isn’t the point of the film to educate people?
This has always been driven, at least in my mind, by prejudice against white Southerners, the (sometimes absurd) deification of JFK, and bitterness over Vietnam. As a fan of LBJ’s domestic accomplishments, this has always driven me nuts. And to see LBJ once again unfairly depicted is aggravating from a movie that I think many of us expected better from. One does not have to make LBJ out to be unsupportive in order to make sure MLK is the real hero of the story. And while artistic license should be granted to movie versions of historical events, perpetuating widely held falsehoods should not be given such leniency.