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Court to keep case of King estate vs. King center

Kate Brumback, Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) -- A federal judge on Monday declined a request by a nonprofit devoted to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory to move a dispute with the slain civil rights leader's estate from Georgia state court to federal court.

On Aug. 28, King's estate filed a complaint in an Atlanta court asking a judge to stop The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change from using his image, likeness and memorabilia. The date was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the slain civil rights icon's famous speech.

The estate is run by King's sons, Martin Luther King III and Dexter King, while the King Center is run by King's remaining living daughter, Bernice King.

The estate claims in the filing that it is the owner of the worldwide rights and property interests involving King's name, image, likeness, recorded voice and memorabilia. In March 2007 the estate granted a nonexclusive, worldwide, royalty-free license to the center to use King's name, likeness and image and to publicly exhibit his writings and spoken words at the center, the complaint says.

The King Center filed papers in federal court asking that the lawsuit be moved there from state court. Even though the case centers on a license governed by state law, the King Center contended the dispute necessarily deals with federal copyright law. The filing also disputed the validity of a licensing agreement at issue in the estate's filing.

The King Center also asked the judge to issue an order to maintain the status quo pending the outcome of the legal dispute.

The King estate's lawyers argued in court filings that the case does not belong in federal court because the estate is seeking an interpretation of the license under state law. For that reason, the estate's lawyers argued, the federal court lacks jurisdiction to grant an order to maintain the status quo and to decide on the merits of the case.

The estate's lawyers also argued that there is no need for an order to maintain the status quo because the estate has already made clear its intention to wait until the state court has ruled on its rights under the license to take any further action.

U.S. District Court Judge Steve C. Jones said in his order that he was returning the case to state court because the federal court lacks jurisdiction over a state license. He also said that means he has no jurisdiction to issue an order maintaining the status quo.

Richard Sinkfield, a lawyer for the King Center, noted that Jones said the decision was a close one. Sinkfield said he looks forward to defending the center's interests in state court.