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In a federal lawsuit brought on Tuesday by Harry Belafonte against the estate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Belafonte is seeking a declaratory judgment from the Manhattan court declaring his ownership in three documents related to Dr. King. These three documents include: an outline of a Vietnam War speech by King, notes to a speech King never got to deliver in Memphis, Tenn. and a condolence letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to King’s wife after the civil rights leader’s 1968 assassination in Memphis.

The lawsuit claims that while preparing to auction these items for charity via Sothesby in 2008, the auction was “astonishingly” blocked. The heirs of the late Dr. King–Dexter, Bernice and Martin Luther King, III, claimed that the documents belong to the estate of Dr. King and were taken and used against the permission of the estate. Their claims against Mr. Belafonte ultimately stalled the auction and the documents are reportedly in a storage unit held by Sothesby.

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What Does This Mean?:

A declaratory judgment is a legally binding court authoritative opinion ultimately telling both parties what their rights and responsibilities are, without any awards for damages or orders being entered.

Mr. Belanfonte claims that Dr. King often times gave away the notes to many of his speeches. In the case of these three documents Mr. Belafonte claims that a set of notes regarding the Vietnam speech was left at his apartment, the notes from the speech to be given in Memphis were once offered to him by Coretta Scott King and later bequeath to him upon the death of Mr. Levison (a close aide of Dr. King) and also the letter from President Johnson was offered to him by Mrs. King about a decade ago due to her admiration of his collection.

Mr. Belafonte also asserts Dr. King’s children and his estate have offered no evidence that the items were stolen or otherwise procured without permission.

How Does This Affect You?:

As an author of a body or work, whether it be a song, book or notes to speech, you own a copyright to that work which, in this case of a work established before 1978, is life plus either 70, 95 or 120 years.

Mr. Belafonte is not asserting ownership to the content of the speeches, but rather the actual tangible document upon which they are housed.

According to the New York Times, Clarence B. Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer and close friend, said the King family had every right to protect its copyright. Still, he said the heirs’ attempt to recover documents from Mr. Belafonte was “inconsistent with, and, really, a denigration of, the love and integrity that their dad had for the people who worked with him.”

It is common for many tangible forms of works of art to be sold to collectors regardless of ownership in the actual copyright of the content. If you are a budding politician, song writer or author, and you want to preserve the legacy of the tangible manner upon which your content was created, then you must be diligent in how you discard of material and also in how it is given to others or left within your estate.

As Dr. King was a man immense giving with a desire to protect the rights of all, I am certain the claims made by his estate are far from what he envisioned.

Rashida Maples, Esq. is Founder and Managing Partner of J. Maples & Associates ( She has practiced Entertainment, Real Estate and Small Business Law for 9 years, handling both transactional and litigation matters. Her clients include R&B Artists Bilal and Olivia, NFL Superstar Ray Lewis, Fashion Powerhouse Harlem’s Fashion Row and Hirschfeld Properties, LLC.

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SHE’S THE LAW: Harry Belafonte’s Lawsuit Against Dr. Martin Luther King’s Family Explained  was originally published on