The suit filed against the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change by King’s sons on the 50th anniversary of their famous father’s “I Have a Dream” speech could gut the site of its historical exhibits and strip the center of its name, according to papers filed in federal court in Atlanta.
Sons Martin Luther King III and Dexter King authorized the suit on behalf of King’s estate to terminate a six-year-old intellectual property licensing agreement between the estate, a for-profit corporation, and the nonprofit King Center. An attorney for the center said ending the licensing deal would be “a grave threat to the Center’s continued operation.”
The estate’s suit said that unless Bernice King, King’s sole surviving daughter, is placed on administrative leave as the center’s CEO and the brothers essentially are given control of the King Center board, they intend to revoke the license.
Bernice King and King Center board members Alveda King, a cousin, and former U.N. ambassador and King lieutenant Andrew Young claimed that the King Center board as a whole never knew about and never authorized the license. They added that the deal is the product of Dexter King’s conflict of interest, given that he is both the King Center chairman and CEO of the King estate.
Agreed upon only by Dexter King and his elder sister, Yolanda King (two months before her death), the deal gave the estate “exceedingly favorable terms” in return for the King Center’s use of King’s intellectual property, the center’s lawyers have argued. They added that the King Center had used these properties—including his writings, name and photographic images—with no restrictions for the 45 years it has been in existence.
The license allows the King estate to audit the King Center, approve hiring of employees to manage the center’s day-to-day operations and revoke all use of intellectual property in use at the King Center. The licensing agreement also claimed the center name, both in full and in two abbreviated versions, as a trademark that was part of the intellectual property of the estate.
Center attorneys hired by Bernice King are claiming that Dexter King signed the licensing agreement without any authority from the King Center board. “Nor did the King Center Board waive [Dexter] King’s clear conflict of interest arising from the fact that he was on both sides of the transaction,” one pleading states.
In a letter that Bernice King’s attorney, Stephen Ryan of the Washington firm McDermott Will & Emery, sent in response to a formal notice from estate lawyers that the estate was rescinding the licensing agreement, the lawyer said, “The obvious purpose of these actions was to hinder, if not put an end to, the King Center’s current name and operations.”
The estate filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court on Aug. 28 as King’s siblings were in Washington commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The estate’s attorney, William Hill of Rafuse Hill & Hodges, declined to say why the suit was filed on the 50th anniversary, referring all questions to a spokeswoman for Intellectual Properties Management Inc.
IPM is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the King estate. It was organized in 1994 by Phillip Jones, a close friend of Dexter King, who also is president and CEO of IPM. The spokeswoman couldn’t be reached.
Center attorneys removed the case to federal court in Atlanta on Sept. 9 and asked Judge Steve Jones of the Northern District of Georgia to issue an emergency order to preserve the status quo regarding the intellectual property and King’s name that are currently in use at the King Center until the litigation is resolved.
They also have asked Jones for an order barring Dexter King and Martin King III—who are both board members of the center—from directing, participating in, or attempting to influence the King Center’s decision-making processes in defending against litigation they filed against the center on behalf of the King estate, where they and their sister are all principals.
The order is necessary, according to center attorneys, because the estate’s “improper and unlawful conduct threatens the very existence of the King Center, necessitating immediate intervention by this court.” Jones has set a hearing next week on the matter.
Local counsel Richard Sinkfield at Rogers & Hardin referred questions to McDermott Will & Emery. A spokesman for the law firm could not be reached.
The litigation is not the first time King’s children have faced off in court over their father’s legacy. They have fought over the ownership and use of his writings, speeches, name, likeness and memorabilia; the money generated by licensing those rights; and which entities will benefit from the resulting largesse.
The current litigation highlights the King siblings’ overlapping roles in the governance and operations of the King estate and the King Center.
At the heart of the current litigation is the validity of the 2007 licensing agreement and a trademark application that the estate quietly filed last year for the King Center name, apparently without the knowledge of the King Center board.
The estate—on the authority of Dexter King as the estate’s CEO and Martin King III as its board chairman—has sought to revoke the 2007 licensing agreement to which Dexter King had committed the center in his capacity as the King Center’s board chairman.
The estate’s suit seeks a declaratory judgment to prohibit the King Center from using the estate’s intellectual property without permission. The suit also claims the King Center has permitted the use of the estate’s intellectual property without the estate’s permission.
While the suit doesn’t mention specifics of that alleged misuse, court papers include a letter from IPM to King Center board member Andrew Young’s foundation questioning what IPM said was the foundation’s “unauthorized use of Dr. King’s intellectual property” in a series of documentaries titled “Andrew Young Presents—A History of the Civil Rights Movement for the Digital Age.”
“The estate is particularly troubled when Dr. King’s intellectual property is used in an unauthorized manner,” IPM manager Eric Tidwell wrote in a letter to the Young foundation. “This not only harms Dr. King’s valuable legacy, but it also does a great disservice to the public by misleading consumers to believe that a production, service, or event is licensed by the estate, when in fact it is not.”
Tidwell also suggested that copyright or trademark infringements could cost as much as $150,000 per item or work infringed.
King’s sons and the estate have conditioned the extension of the licensing agreement not only on their sister’s suspension as CEO but also on Young’s removal from the center board “for breaching his fiduciary duty by willfully infringing upon [the estate's] intellectual property in commercial ventures.”
The suit also claims that care and storage of valuable physical property at the King Center is “unacceptable” because it is stored in a manner that has made it susceptible to damage from fire, water, mold and mildew as well as vulnerable to theft.
In federal court papers, King Center lawyers hired by Bernice King called the brothers’ suit tantamount to extortion in a bid to take over the center and secure control of all property and memorabilia associated with King that is either displayed or stored there.
The suit was “just one recent action the estate has taken to disrupt the King Center and prohibit it from operating as a non-profit institution under Martin Luther King Jr.’s name,” one motion said. Center lawyers are challenging the estate’s ownership of the trademark to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the King Center.
Center lawyers also accuse the King brothers of having “intentionally violated their fiduciary duties to the Center” by exercising their majority control over the King estate “to cause the company—from which they benefit financially—to take actions that directly harm the King Center.”
The two men, center lawyers wrote in a letter included in court papers, “disregarded their fiduciary obligations to the King Center … in pursuit of their own personal financial interests, and the related interest of the King Estate Inc.”
In addition, the estate’s notification of its intent to terminate the licensing agreement “is a blatant attempt to force the center’s board to cede control” to Dexter King and Martin King III or “expose the Center to severe operational risk.”
The scheme, center lawyers said, “is totally inconsistent with their duties to the King Center, and the spirit of their father and mother, the founder of the King Center.”
King Center bylaws prohibit board members and officers from using their positions of trust to further their private interests. In an affidavit filed in federal court, Bernice King said she participated in an estate board meeting in August during which her brothers voted to rescind the King Center’s license to make use of King’s intellectual property and his name. She said in her affidavit that she abstained from voting but told her brothers at the time “that I believed their actions were immoral, unethical and may not be legally defensible.”