Read This Before Posting Images or Quotes From Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Day

Opinion: Sometimes saying nothing is better than an awkward or off-the-mark attempt

Martin Luther King Jr. quote inscription on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Pgiam/iStock

As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches, social media and community managers for brands big and small are thinking about posting quotes and images of King in reverence to his amazing legacy. Here are a few things to think about before scheduling that post hitting the send button.

According to The Washington Post, “All of King’s papers and speeches are owned by family members, some of whom also operate the licensing operation through which those who want to use them must go.”

While the entire speech is copyrighted, is it possible to use a sentence or two under fair usage laws? Are images of King copyrighted, as well? Images of King can be purchased on royalty-free images sites like Getty Images with prices ranging from $150 and up for standard editorial rights.

Is a meme with a quote considered editorial?

Daliah Saper of Saper Law explains: “Those who try to bypass formal licensing of Dr. King’s speech or his images and rely on a fair-use defense must be prepared to justify each use on a case-by-case basis. There is no clear definition of what does and does not constitute fair use. Courts will consider the context, purpose and amount of use in making their determinations. For example, classroom or editorial use might qualify as a fair use, whereas use in an advertisement or promotional tweet will be tougher to justify. Converting an image or excerpts from a speech into a meme does not automatically make the use editorial or ‘fair.’ Indeed, even news outlets can’t just use images as part of stories without permission. That’s why they have their own photographers or they license images to run with their stories.”

Of course, if the usage is commercial, and you plan to profit from using the image or quote—like an “I have a dream” T-shirt—you must obtain permission and will likely have to pay a licensing fee.

Here are few general tips:

  • The post or tweet should be a tribute and not a promotion.
  • If you decide to post something related to King, stay on brand.
  • The bigger the brand, the more exposure.
  • The hashtag #MLKday is safe to use since you are referencing the day
  • Talk about the topic, rather than using a quote or King’s name, likeness or quote.

Honoring the legacy

Once you’ve obtained the proper permissions, make sure to craft any tweet or post with care, honoring King’s legacy and not using it to promote your brand.

The Society for Human Resource Management did a wonderful job of this a few years ago, honoring King’s life works and starting a conversation about how to keep it moving forward.

On the more awkward end of the spectrum, ZzzQuil’s MLK Day tweet was just odd—perhaps on brand, but still uncomfortably awkward.

The internet wasn’t kind with its response. ZzzQuil was slammed by Twitter users who either mocked it or told it outright that it was wrong.

As Kristina Netti so eloquently put it:

All in all, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Using copyrighted images or works of King can get your brand into trouble legally, and if you post something off-brand or promotional leveraging the day to make money, the internet might respond unkindly.

Sometimes saying nothing is better than an awkward or off-the-mark attempt.

Hope Bertram is the founder and CEO of educational event company Digital Megaphone.