(CN) – On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, his estate sued a nonprofit run by the iconic leader’s daughter, claiming she plans to keep using her father’s “irreplaceable” memorabilia despite no longer being licensed to do so.
In a lawsuit filed Aug. 28 in Fulton County Court, the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. Inc. — run by King’s sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King — claims it licensed the civil rights activist’s intellectual property rights to The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in March 2009.
The King Center’s CEO is Bernice King, the youngest child of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968.
Dr. King’s estate claims it supports the center’s mission to maintain King’s legacy and has been the nonprofit’s single largest individual donor for the past decade.
But it says the center has been careless with Dr. King’s intellectual property, which includes the leader’s “name, image, recorded voice and memorabilia,” along with “all works of authorship … including writings, speeches, sermons, letters and copyrights,” trademark interests, and “the remains and coffin contained within the crypt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
The estate says it conducted an audit in April, which “revealed that the current manner of care and storage of the physical property by defendant is unacceptable.” It claims the items are “susceptible to damage by fire, water, mold, and mildew, as well as theft.”
King’s sons say they tried to work with their sister to fix the problems, but the relationship “has recently become strained, resulting in a total breakdown in communication and transparency.”
As a result, the estate allegedly was forced to terminate the worldwide, royalty-free licensing agreement by mailing the King Center a 30-day notice on Aug. 10.
The notice stated that the King Center could prevent its license from being terminated if it agreed to place Bernice on administrative leave pending the final outcome of an audit; get the estate’s approval for all responsibilities related to the “use, care and treatment” of the memorabilia; and immediately remove Andrew Young and Dr. King’s niece, Alveda King, from its board of directors. The estate claims Alveda tried to “impede” the audit.
Bernice, through her personal attorney, responded with a letter indicating that the center “is taking action to work a violation of plaintiff’s intellectual property rights,” according to the estate.
It wants a court order forcing the King Center to stop using its intellectual property after the license expires in September.
The estate is represented by William Hill of Rafuse Hill & Hodges in Atlanta