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Court upholds copyright extension act

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Court upholds copyright extension act

  • In a 7-2 decision, the Court upheld a 1998 extension to copyright terms that was challenged as unconstitutional by a New Hampshire Internet publisher.

Jan. 15, 2003 — Free speech activists waving their “Free Mickey” banners will have to put their signs away.

Mickey is staying put — at least for several more years.

A 1998 law that extended copyright terms does not violate the Constitution, the Court ruled in a 7-2 decision.

At issue in Eldred v. Ashcroft was the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended copyright terms to 70 years beyond the death of the creator, from 50. Under the law, corporation copyrights are protected for 95 years, rather than 75 under the previous law.

Works that would be in the public domain today had it not been for the extension include the movie “The Wizard of Oz;” the song “Stardust” by Hoagie Carmichael and Mitchell Parish; works by composer Maurice Ravel and early depictions of Mickey Mouse.

The case stemmed from a project started by Eric Eldred that publishes online books and other works with expired copyrights.

Eldred’s attorney, Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, argued before the court in October that copyright extension is “keeping people from taking parts of their culture and sharing it with others on the Internet.”

But the court disagreed, saying that Congress was within its power to extend copyright terms.

“Guided by text, history, and precedent, we cannot agree with petitioners’ submission that extending the duration of existing copyrights is categorically beyond Congress’ authority under the Copyright Clause,” the court wrote in its opinion.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer dissented.

Breyer argued that copyright extension defies the very purpose for which copyright was implemented — to promote arts and sciences.

“The blanket effect of this 20-year extension — the longest blanket extension since the Nation’s founding– is to make the copyright term not limited, but virtually perpetual,” Breyer wrote. “Its primary legal effect is to grant the extended term not to authors, but to their heirs, estates, or corporate successors. And most importantly, its practical effect is not to promote, but to inhibit, the progress of ‘Science.'”

Stevens would have invalidated the retroactivity of the copyright extension, noting that a government may not “extend the life of a patent beyond its copyright date.” He also disagreed that the court did not have authority to decide the issue.

“By failing to protect the public interest in free access to the products of inventive and artistic genius — indeed, by virtually ignoring the central purpose of the Copyright/Patent Clause — the Court has quitclaimed to Congress its principal responsibility in this area of law,” Stevens wrote.

Co-council on the case and assistant professor at Harvard Law School Jonathan Zittrain said it is “hard to see a silver lining” in the case. He worries that Congress will continue to extend copyright.

“Perhaps the Court will be a little more skeptical next time,” he said.

Eldred himself expressed obvious disappointed with the court’s opinion.

“It perpetuates the dam that has been erected so that works published after 1922 will be off-limits,” Eldred said. “It seems to me the court lost an opportunity to set copyright for the Internet age.”

(Eldred v. Ashcroft, 01-618)


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