Thursday, February 17, 2005

Eyes on the Sleaze

This is a bit of an old story in blogosphere terms, but I wanted to explicitly tie two different threads together, so bear with me -- if you wish.

Eyes on the Prize was (I use the past tense advisedly) a landmark documentary telling the story of the Civil Rights struggles in the fifties and sixties. Widely lauded, it encapsulated the era of struggle and success.

What's happened to this documentary appears to encapsulate more recent eras in American history: rampant greed, abuse of copyright laws, lack of a social conscience, toadying to corporations, and shameless self-promotion.

"Eyes on the Prize" is a natural for viewing in Black History Month. But you probably won't see it this year unless you break (or bend) copyright laws. A Virginia school, which had bought a legal VHS copy of the documantary back when it was still available, received a threatening legal letter demanding that they not show the documentary.

They did not show the film in that school.

A group called Downhill Battle has tried to distribute the movie via BitTorrent. Since legally purchased copies cannot be shown even in a school, this seems to be a sympathetic form of civil disobedience. Of course, the real problem is that copyright and the threat of legal action is being used to silence this highly praised version of the story of civil rights.

Reports of this travesty of copyright abuse don't explain who is demanding licensure payment for what part of the documentary. But my bets are on a group that appears to have totally perverted Martin Luther King's message -- the family of Dr. King and their related businesses.

Some of the things they've done to sully their family name are truly stunning.
  • Letting the King Center in Atlanta fall into wretched disrepair while several Kings are taking six-figure salaries.

  • Plans for a memorial to Dr. King on the Mall in Washington, D.C. were halted when the King family demanded a fee to use his image.

  • They have sought to license King's words and image to corporations (Alcatel, Cingular, Time-Warner) while threatening legal action or demanding exorbitant payment from scholars who seek to reproduce King's speeches or other writings.

  • The King estate wrote a threatening letter to Henry Hampton, the maker of "Eyes on the Prize," for using King's image in the movie without giving them enough money or control. Eventually the production company sued the King estate to to license the use of King in the documentary.

  • The head of the MLK foundation, Dr. King's son Dexter, seems to see his father's legacy as a means to enrich himself monetarily while neglecting his father's meaning to the US and the world.
It just goes on and on, and it's horribly sordid.

To return to the current fracas about forcing the school to not show the documentary, the lawyer who wrote the school referred only to issues at the "licensee level." What are the chances that most, if not all, of that pressure, comes from the relatives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself?

Of course, "Tribute to the King" has multiple meanings. Too bad the King family has lost sight of all those meanings that don't include coughing up ducats.

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