Feeds

Supremes: Congress can extend copyright terms if it wants to

Even if this removes works from the public domain

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The US Supreme Court has rejected a case that argued that works whose copyright terms have once expired should remain in the public domain, even if the term of copyright is subsequently extended to cover them again.

This has become a familiar sight in recent years. As copyright terms have been extended, works whose copyright had expired for a time found themselves removed from the public domain by extended terms; most famously, perhaps, James Joyce's seminal work Ulysses.

This case, filed in 2001 by a University of Denver music professor, contested Congress' right to place such works back in copyright. It treads similar ground to Professor Lawrence Lessig's previous failure to make the argument stick in the Eldred case before the Supremes in 2003. Lessig was contesting the CTEA, or Copyright Term Extension Act. This time, it was the United States' 1989 signature to the Berne Convention that was being contested.

Joining Berne gave US authors reciprocal rights, but it also obliged the US to harmonise copyright terms with treaty members - and in some cases, that entailed an extension to the term. The US was a reluctant signatory to Berne. As the Supremes note, Congress 'punted' on the the issue of giving foreign public domain works retrospective protection, and was dragged kicking and cussing to the table by the Uruguay trade round in 1994.

Professor Golan argued that by formally complying with Berne Congress had exceeded its authority. This led to an argument about what copyright is actually for - a question that invariably produces strikingly different interpretations.

"The statute before us does not encourage anyone to produce a single new work," Justice Breyer argued. "By definition, it bestows monetary rewards only on owners of old works - works that have already been created and already are in the American public domain. At the same time, the stat­ute inhibits the dissemination of those works, foreign works published abroad after 1923, of which there are many millions."

Breyer also pointed to a genuine harm - financial costs to non-profit orchestras.

But the Court majority disagreed. The fact that composers such as Copland were under copyright hardly prevented the American public from enjoying them, they point out.

"In aligning the United States with other nations bound by the Berne Convention, and thereby according equitable treatment to once disfavored foreign authors, Congress can hardly be charged with a design to move stealthily toward a regime of perpetual copyrights," the majority decreed. The justices added that Congress had added copyright exclusivity many times before.

The Court rejected Golan 6-2. You can read the opinion here. ®

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
Phones 4u slips into administration after EE cuts ties with Brit mobe retailer
More than 5,500 jobs could be axed if rescue mission fails
Special pleading against mass surveillance won't help anyone
Protecting journalists alone won't protect their sources
Phones 4u website DIES as wounded mobe retailer struggles to stay above water
Founder blames 'ruthless network partners' for implosion
Apple's iPhone 6 first-day sales are MEANINGLESS, mutters analyst
Big weekend queues only represent fruity firm's supply
Radio hams can encrypt, in emergencies, says Ofcom
Consultation promises new spectrum and hints at relaxed licence conditions
Bill Gates, drugs and the internet: Top 10 Larry Ellison quotes
'I certainly never expected to become rich ... this is surreal'
Big Content Australia just blew a big hole in its credibility
AHEDA's research on average content prices did not expose methodology, so appears less than rigourous
EMC, HP blockbuster 'merger' shocker comes a cropper
Stand down, FTC... you can put your feet up for a bit
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.