Zealous guardians of his words and his likeness, the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is demanding a share of the proceeds from the sudden wave of T-shirts, posters and other merchandise depicting the civil rights leader alongside Barack Obama.
Isaac Newton Farris Jr., King’s nephew and head of the nonprofit King Center in Atlanta, said the estate is entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing fees—maybe even millions.
“Some of this is probably putting food on people’s plates. We’re not trying to stop anybody from legitimately supporting themselves,” he said, “but we cannot allow our brand to be abused.”
King’s writings, likeness and voice are considered intellectual property, and almost any use—from graduate thesis papers to TV documentaries—are subject to approval by his estate, now administered by his surviving children, Martin Luther King III, Dexter King and the Rev. Bernice King. (Because Obama is an elected official, his words and image are in the public domain and can be used without permission.)
Farris said he expects to announce deals in the coming weeks to license some items featuring images of King and Obama, and may sell some in the King Center bookstore alongside recordings of his speeches, postcards, calendars, mugs bearing images of King, and other licensed merchandise, which nets the center about $800,000 annually.
Any proceeds from King-Obama merchandise would also go to the King Center, said Farris, a member of the estate management team that reviews intellectual property issues.
The family, which refuses to divulge details of its licensing deals, is also discussing how to go after violators.
“We realize the historic nature of events surrounding President-elect Obama and we are seeking an elegant solution to address the commercial use of Dr. King’s image in connection with our newly elected president,” Dexter King said in a statement.
With the siblings already battling in court over whether to publish their mother’s diaries, it could be difficult for them to reach a consensus.
Jock Smith, an attorney for Bernice King and Martin Luther King III, warned that any action Dexter King takes without their approval would be “an illegal action not sanctioned by the corporation.”