The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which ensures protracted copyright protection for literature, movies, songs, and cartoon characters.
The ruling was a major setback for artists, online publishers, and anyone else with a vested interested in free access to public domain works and “products of inventive and artistic genius.”
The 7-2 ruling in Eldred v. Ashcroft was a huge victory for entertainment giant Disney
and other major corporations that rely on the profits from copyrighted property, such as its early Mickey Mouse cartoons, as a revenue mainstay.
In 1998, hundreds of thousands of books, movies, and songs were on the verge of being released into the public domain when Congress extended the copyright law by 20 years.
One of the questions the Eldred v. Ashcroft case raised was whether Congress acted unconstitutionally in granting extended copyright protection and whether that extension impacted free speech guarantees in the First Amendment.
Under the CTEA as it stands, the term for copyrighted material was increased from 75 years to 95 years, which means that many works of literature, photography, film, and music created before 1925 will remain out of the realm of public domain for several more decades.
The case was brought by plaintiff Eric Eldred and his attorney Lawrence Lessig, who argued that the copyright extension act was put in motion by powerful media and music conglomerates that are unwilling to part with intellectual property, which in some cases has proved very lucrative for companies such as AOL Time Warner
, Disney, and The Music Publishers Association.
Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford Law School and the founder of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. He and Eldred are both founders of the Creative Commons, a nonprofit, copyright-free zone that helps people dedicate their creative works to the public domain or retain their copyright while licensing their creative work as free for certain uses, on certain conditions.
Lawrence Lessig sued Attorney General Janet Reno in 1999 in an attempt to overturn the CTEA.
In effect, the CTEA gave independent copyright holders as well as media and music companies a 20-year extension on profitable, and in some cases world-famous media properties like “Gone with the Wind,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and books by Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few.
Over the past forty years, Congress has extended the length of existing copyrights 11 times and those in favor of overturning the CTEA argue that those extensions acted in favor of corporate interests by stopping the flow of creative material into the public domain as original copyright law deemed they should.
Copyrights lasted only 14 years in 1790, but under the CTEA, that period is now 70 years after the death of the creator. Works owned by corporations are protected under the CTEA for 95 years.
The copyright extension debate has also been intensified by the advent of digital media and the Internet which now serves at the forefront of free speech and free exchange and has spurred the demand for increasing amounts of public domain material.
However, in Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court decided that copyright extension was neither unconstitutional, nor a violation of free speech rights.
The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to create a federal copyright system for creative material and to “promote the progress of science and useful arts” by securing for “limited times” copyright protection to authors and inventors.
The Bush administration defended the extension, telling the court that while justices may personally disagree with the latest extension, Congress had the
authority to pass it.
John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer were the only two justices that disagreed with their colleagues on the ruling.
The Supreme Court’s decision is expected to have a widespread affect on movie studios, music publishers, and any persons or organizations required to pay royalties on creative works.
“It has often been said that movements gain by losing in the Supreme Court,” said Lessig on his recent defeat. “I will always be grateful to Eric Eldred, and our other plaintiffs, for putting his faith in this case. I will always regret not being able to meet that faith with the success it deserves. What the Framers of our constitution did is not enough. We must do more.”