"As one of the most public and most widely disseminated speeches in history, it could be the poster child for general publications," U.S. District Judge William O'Kelley said Wednesday in ruling against the King estate, which had sued CBS News.
King made the speech on Aug. 28, 1963, before 200,000 people at a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He successfully applied for a copyright of his speech the next month.
But O'Kelley concluded that the civil rights leader forfeited any copyright interest in the speech when he distributed advance copies without any copyright notice, placed no restrictions on what use could be made of the speech and generally encouraged wide distribution of it.
CBS signed a contract with the Arts and Entertainment Network in 1994 to produce a series called The 20th Century With Mike Wallace. A segment contained film coverage of the speech, prompting the lawsuit.
"We took on this case to protect the public's right to know about major events of historical significance," CBS News president Andrew Heyward said in a statement Wednesday. "This decision means that Dr. King's landmark speech is truly in the public domain, where it belongs. It is not just CBS News, but the American public that won today."
Attorney Joseph M. Beck said the King estate would likely appeal.