It’s not “just” entertainment that’s locked up by long, inflexible copyrights. Lots of people downplay copyright battles as mere sideshows: who needs access to pop songs or hit movies? But the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington last week reminded us the King estate claims copyright locks up his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, too.
Again, fair use just isn’t enough. You can always quote a few lines without asking permission, but that’s likely to be the same few lines that have become cliched with repetition. Quote the whole speech to make a more substantial point, and you face thousand-dollar license fee claims from the estate. Quote them to make a point critical of King, and you may be denied a license entirely. This kind of control over parts of our history hardly “promotes progress,” and it would be folly to claim that it was the incentives of copyright protection that motivated Dr. King to speak. (Incidentally, there have been several fights over whether the speech is copyrighted at all, having been published (spoken) without a registration at a time when registration was required.)