Monday, January 16, 2006

The Tragedy of the Commons

A story in the New York Times, "Disarray at Center for Dr. King Casts Pall on Family and Legacy" was a sober reminder about the hazards of nepotism to our common rhetorical inheritance and the dangers of allowing the appropriation for profit of the intellectual property of the civil rights movement. (It's been a bleak week for post-sixties social activism, actually. During the same period, The Los Angeles Times wrote about infighting generated by the family of Cesar Chavez in the four part series "UFW: A Broken Contract.")

To see for myself, I visited the website of the King Center and immediately reacted negatively. Maybe it was the sound blaring out as soon as the page opened . . . always a web design turn-off. Maybe I was irked by the fact that they chose a speech segment with an anti-education theme, which attacked the importance of college degrees, subject-verb agreement, and Plato and Aristotle. Maybe it was the digital image of the Coretta Scott King book with SAMPLE stamped on it to protect their intellectual property and make image-grabbing impossible for kids doing reports.

From an information literacy standpoint, the site was a disaster. No interesting digitized documents or online exhibitions. Worse, when you opened the first page marked Martin Luther King, Jr. both of the links were dead (on the Saturday of the holiday weekend!), so the site is obviously not being properly maintained. Most depressing were the draconian intellectual property restrictions in their Terms of Service that credited Intellectual Properties Management as the copyright holder of record.

Intellectual Properties Management is run by one of King's sons, who from what I've read sounds like a real foe of the Creative Commons. According to the Times, "Dexter King's entrepreneurial spirit has generated controversy since the moment he first took control of the King Center board in 1994 as his mother's designated successor. He battled the Park Service over land where he wanted to build an interactive, for-profit museum, disbanded the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday commission because it was a fund-raising competitor and licensed his father's image to cellular phone companies for commercials." In the trademark case Dexter S. King v. Trace Publishing Company, King's heirs actually attempt to trademark the phrase "I Have a Dream" (and even "We Have a Dream," which wasn't in the speech). For those disinclined to think ill of the King family, "Martin Luther King Jr., Minting a Fortune" in Forbes magazine describes some of IPM's worst abuses.

To those who study rhetoric, the IPM situation is particularly ironic because King was a famous borrower of oratory and even may have once gone too far when he took texts from others without acknowledgement in some passages in his doctoral dissertation. (I don't hold this conduct against King. Famous writers are often accused of plagiarism; my favorite examples are Diderot and Voltaire.)

Perhaps the most well-known example of IPM's cupidity is the sale of footage from the "I Have a Dream" speech to Alcatel to create a computer generated 360 degree view of King speaking that also celebrates the communication company's products. Alcatel's MLK themed ad campaign was created by Arnold Worldwide with the digital help of Industrial Light and Magic. (The Arnold agency also takes credit for work done on "The Truth" anti-smoking campaign, which has been covered twice on this blog.) Although they were near King historically, at the real podium in front of the Lincoln Monument, other participants in this key civil rights event have been digitally removed from the stage by the PR experts, as this page on the Media Literacy Clearinghouse at the University of South Carolina shows.

I watched the television ad at the Scholarship in the Digital Age conference, and I have to admit it was visually engrossing and emotionally vivid. Just like The Wizard of Oz, the black and white sequence transforms into color, and, as the camera pans around the opening shots of an empty Washington Mall, King's audience quickly fills the space and becomes a teeming, enthusiastic throng as the words of King's wonderful "I Have a Dream" speech resonate from the three dimensional virtual space.

Another website about the civil rights leader that Intellectual Properties Management licenses, MLK Online, is unbelievably crass and covered with ads. A pitch for a phone company dominates the banner.

A trip to American Rhetoric: The Power of Oratory in the United States might be a much better way to celebrate the holiday that commemorates both a great wordsmith and a great political thinker. It includes an online speech bank, sound clips from alliteration to synecdoche in "Rhetorical Figures in Sound," great movie speeches, Christian rhetoric, the rhetoric of 9-11, an online quiz that I genuinely enjoyed (despite my "C" grade at the end), and a fun exercise about rhetorical liberties and Dennis Rodman's antics on the basketball court.

At the very least the virtual visitor to Atlanta, Georgia can travel a few blocks from the King Center to the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site run by the National Park Service and take a virtual tour of the King Birth Home.



Blogger Lupton said...

I love the American Rhetoric site, and am adding it to my teaching website for Lincoln. It's great that a site like this exists to preserve such a variety of speeches in audio form. The tale you tell of the commodification of King is a useful reminder on this holiday weekend.

5:24 PM  

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