Supreme Court: Copyright can be extended to foreign works once in public domain

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld Congress’s right to extend copyright protection to millions of books, films and musical compositions by foreign artists that once were free for public use.

Under Congress’s 1994 law, movies by Alfred Hitchcock, paintings by Picasso and the symphonies of the great 20th-century Russian composers were among the works that could no longer be freely quoted, copied, played, shared or republished without paying royalties or seeking permission.

In a 6 to 2 decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress was acting “comfortably” within its powers when it extended copyright protection to foreign artists under treaty obligations that gave U.S. artists the same rights.

The court rejected a challenge from orchestra conductors, educators, performers and others that Congress’s action violated the Constitution’s copyright clause and the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression.

“Nothing in the historical record, congressional practice, or our own jurisprudence warrants exceptional First Amendment solicitude for copyrighted works that were once in the public domain,” Ginsburg wrote.

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case, presumably because she had worked on it while solicitor general under President Obama.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.

The decision marked the end of a 10-year legal trek by Lawrence Golan, a University of Denver music professor and conductor who challenged the law on behalf of fellow conductors, academics and film historians.

Golan represented small orchestras that said they could no long afford to play such works as Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” which once was in the public domain but received copyright protection that significantly increased its cost.

Golan was supported by librarians and corporations such as Google. Removing works from the public domain, the company told the court, would chill its efforts to use the Internet to give the public access to “the vast stores of human knowledge and experience recorded in books.”

But the court agreed with the Obama administration, which defended the law, that the public had no vested right to the works just because they had not received copyright protection when they should have.

“Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf could once be performed free of charge; after [the law] the right to perform it must be obtained in the marketplace,” Ginsburg wrote. “This is the same marketplace, of course, that exists for the music of Prokofiev’s U. S. contemporaries: works of Copland and Bernstein, for example.”

Congress, backed by the motion picture and music industries, had said the action was necessary under the Uruguay Round of international trade talks to protect the rights of American artists abroad.

Breyer acknowledged that one purpose of the Constitution’s copyright clause is to make sure artists retain control over their work. But he said the court’s majority ignored another purpose: to encourage new works and spread knowledge for the public good.

“Does the clause empower Congress to enact a statute that withdraws works from the public domain, brings about higher prices and costs, and in doing so seriously restricts dissemination, particularly to those who need it for scholarly, educational, or cultural purposes — all without providing any additional incentive for the production of new material?” Breyer wrote.

“I believe the answer is no.”

The case is Golan v. Holder .

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.
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