10.11.2002 12:00 PM
Supreme Court tackles copyright challenge

The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a case that has the potential to shake up American copyright law. It could also directly affect the adoption of digital television in the U.S., where various video-on-demand and other wireless services (on TV and the Web) have been hindered due to restrictive access to the most popular video content.

The case seeks to overturn the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), a law that extended current and future copyrights by 20 years. If the court agrees with the plaintiff (the suit was brought by a Web site owner that deals in rare books), the ruling could also threaten the 1976 Copyright Act—the foundation of today’s U.S. copyright policy.

The lawsuit centers on Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the part that authorizes Congress “to promote the progress of science and useful arts” by issuing copyrights for “limited times.”

The first U.S. copyright law, enacted by Congress in 1790, established a 14-year copyright term, renewable for another 14 years. Current law extends individual copyrights to 70 years after the creator's death and copyrights held by corporations to 95 years.

However, in 1998, several media conglomerates, including Walt Disney, persuaded Congress to extend the copyright further to protect works whose corporate copyrights were about to expire. Those works included some movies, recordings and books that included characters such as Mickey Mouse.

Professor Lawrence Lessig of the Stanford Law School, and lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told the court that unless it “draws the line” by overturning CTEA, the “limited term” envisioned by the framers of the Constitution would be moot. He called the law the functional equivalent of a perpetual copyright that fails to serve the constitutional purpose of promoting creativity.

Although court members appeared sympathetic to Lessig’s argument, they also realized that a favorable ruling in this case would threaten the constitutionality of the 1976 Copyright Act. “Wouldn't the result of accepting Lessig's theory mean “chaos” in the world of intellectual property?” Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked.

That’s possible, Lessig responded. However, Lessig noted the constitutional importance of copyright law in modern society. “This case affects so many millions of people who use the Internet,” Lessig said. “The First Amendment argument is fundamental to understanding what's important here.”

There was no indication when the court might rule on the case.

For more information visit the Supreme Courts of the United States' Web site at: www.supremecourtus.gov/.

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