IP Deal At Heart Of King Dispute
At stake in Latest fuss between family factions is control of the King Center and its licensing pact with the King estate
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.