Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Supreme Court Preview – Golan v. Holder: Can Congress Remove Works from the Public Domain?
On Wednesday, October 5th, the Supreme Court heard arguments for Golan v. Holder, to decide whether Article I, § 8, cl. 8 of the Constitution prohibits Congress from taking works out of the public domain. This clause, known as the Progress Clause, exists to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Essentially, the Court’s task is to decide whether Congress can restore copyright protection for works whose copyright protection has already expired. For the purposes of Golan, analyzing the phrase “for limited times” will be particularly important to the Court as they discuss whether that limited time status is revocable by Congress for certain works—specifically foreign works.
U.S. copyright laws have always been formulated to accord with the time limitation mandated by the Progress Clause. Originally, or at least commencing with the 1909 Act, copyrighted works, so long as they complied with the requirements of notice and registration, were granted with a twenty-eight year period of copyrightability, which was renewable for a subsequent term of equal duration. This Act was then superseded by the Copyright Act of 1976. Regarding the term of protection under the 1976 Act, works created prior to 1976 received an extension amounting to fifty plus the life of the author. Subsequently, the Berne Convention was held, and in 1988, a two-part implementation took place. First, signatories to the Act are required to recognize the works of authors from other signatory countries, and second, all works (with an exception) shall have copyright protection for at least fifty years after the author’s death. It was not until 1998 and the enactment of the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), more affectionately dubbed the “Sonny Bono Bonus Act,” that copyright duration as it exists today was implemented. The Act extended the duration of a copyright to the life of the author plus seventy years. Additionally, it stipulated that any works created in or after 1923 were, as they were still under copyright protection in 1998, were granted additional protection until 2019 or later. As a matter of course, since works created prior to January 1, 1978 (the triggering date for the 1976 Act) would naturally lapse into the public domain, the 1998 Act included that such works were to remain protected until 2047. Often the 1998 Act is called the Mickey Mouse Extension Act, because it was largely believed that the extension was granted in order to postpone the date at which copyright protection for Mickey Mouse would enter the public domain. And it is here that the issues in Golan arose.
Golan is irrevocably tied to another Supreme Court case of note, Eldred v. Ashcroft, decided in 2003. In Eldred, the plaintiff operated a website that displayed what new works entering the public domain were every year. The 1998 Act effectively put Eldred out of business, however, since per the Act, the next time any works will enter the public domain is 2019; Eldred would have to go on hiatus for quite some time before his website could finally be updated. Ultimately, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the CTEA. Represented by copyright advocate and champion Lawrence Lessig, Eldred made several arguments essentially claiming that this extension was just one of many the public could expect in order to prevent certain works from ever lapsing into the public domain. Lessig argued that the extension violated the limited nature of the Progress Clause, and invariably became unlimited. The solicitor general, arguing on behalf of the attorney general, countered by explaining that the very act of setting a time limit—seventy years plus the life of the author—was inherently limited because it set a hard date at which a copyrighted work would no longer be protected. The Court agreed with this argument, and others, and upheld the constitutionality of the Act 7-2. The ultimate impact of Eldred was to uphold the notion that Congress, empowered through the Progress Clause, is the appropriate body for setting the relevant limit.
Returning to Golan, the result of Eldred initially doomed Golan; the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado dismissed the primary issue of whether the 1998 Act violated the limited time element of the Progress Clause. That case, originally under the name Golan v. Ashcroft in accordance with the fact that John Ashcroft was the attorney general at the time of suit, morphed into Golan v. Holder, as Attorney General Eric Holder was attorney general in 2009 when the suit was brought again. Under this new title, a new Act was brought under scrutiny: the 1994 Uruguay Rounds Agreement Act (URAA). This Act relies heavily on the restoration provisions of the Berne Convention. Under the 1988 Act, foreign works still copyrighted in their source country but that were not in the United States were restored to copyright protection in the U.S. But, in a twist, the United States refused to sign on to this particular aspect of the Berne Convention, and the criticism it faced as a result of this denouncement was remedied by the passing of the URAA. The relevant provision of the URAA restored copyright protection to foreign works that were previously not copyrighted in the United States. It is this provision of the URAA— in addition to the restoration provisions of the CTEA—with which Golan took issue.
As Eldred did for the CTEA, Golan challenges that the URAA violates the limitedness of copyright law by restoring certain foreign works to copyright protection. This argument was not persuasive at the district court level, nor at the in the Appeals Court for the Tenth Circuit. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari on March 7, 2011 for review in its upcoming term.
While oral arguments have been made, the outcome of this case in the Supreme Court could mean many things for the right of the public to copy works that have entered the public domain by virtue of the lapse of their copyright protection. Some argue that withdrawing certain works from the public domain will stifle creativity and discourage the production of new works. Preserving Congress’s right to restore copyright protection to works of its choosing opens up the possibility for doing so for unlimited works. Perhaps if Congress deems it necessary in the future, it will restore copyright protection to works it decides are worthy of continued protection. Advocates argue that the concept of a free and open public commons, one in which artists are free to draw on other works for inspiration, is threatened by a shrinking public domain. It is believed that focusing the Court’s attention on the integrity of the public domain, indeed, the public domain which allows U.S. artists and authors to use the foreign works at issue as a foundation for their own work, is at risk.
Conversely, the government could potentially argue that this practice of restoring copyright protection to certain works is a prerogative Congress has exercised before. The natural byproduct of passing new copyright laws extended copyright protection to works that would have lapsed by for the extension. For example, works created prior to 1978 were gifted with additional years of protection; those who sought to rely on the lapsing of the copyright for those works into the public domain were, at that time, disappointed, but the constitutionality of the 1978 was ultimately upheld. The same could be said for the extensions granted under Berne and the CETA, and therefore, the government could argue, for the sake of consistency, the Court should hold that the extensions under the URAA are similarly constitutional.
This case could finally settle the right of Congress to exclusively control the setting of the limits for copyrighted works. So long as there is a limit, it is the privilege of Congress to set that limit within reason. And in light of the rapidity of technological advancements and the impact that invariably has on the creation of new types of works, not allowing Congress to exclusively control the setting of limits certainly emphasizes a clear bottom line: those who believe the creative commons should be inherently public are hereby being disabused of that notion. In other words, copyright protection persists for the purpose of protecting the rights of artists and authors to continue to create without the threat of copying, which is the basic purpose of the Progress Clause. It will be interesting to see which side prevails, and whether the Court opts to sanctify the superiority of Congress in this matter, or instead upholds the accessibility of knowledge and ideas.
For an analysis of the procedural history of Golan v. Holder, see “Today Congress Giveth, Tomorrow They Taketh Away” by Charles Glyman.
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