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.”
But while Obama's election as the first black president may be the fulfillment of King's dream and could yield a big windfall for his estate, policing his image and actually collecting any fees could prove to be a legal nightmare because of the great proliferation of unauthorized King-Obama paraphernalia, much of it sold by street vendors.
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King's writings, likeness and voice are considered intellectual property, and almost any use is 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 merchandise, which nets the center about $800,000 annually.
The family is protective of how King is depicted, but has never faced a challenge quite as big as this.
Vendors across the country have capitalized on connecting Obama to King, mostly without permission and without a penny of the proceeds going to his estate.
“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.