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U.S. Supreme Court allows 20-year copyright extension

In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a 20-year extension that Congress granted to all existing copyrights in 1998. The controversial ruling was a significant victory for large corporate media companies, including the Hollywood motion picture and television studios, which had lobbied for the extension.

At stake were billions of dollars and whether such corporate icons as the original Mickey Mouse and other aging artistic works from the past century would slip into the public domain. Opponents saw the ruling as another step toward a perpetual copyright and the gradual loss of the legal concept of public domain. Even members of the court who voted for the extension said it was bad public policy, but within the constitutional authority of Congress.

The key plaintiff in the case was Eric Eldred, who wanted to publish some Robert Frost poems. Others included a church choir director; an orchestral sheet music company; a company that restores old films; and Dover Publications, a publisher of books that have passed into the public domain.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion rejected the opposition of a coalition of Internet publishers and other users of noncopyrighted material to the Copyright Term Extension Act. Dissenting were Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer.

The challengers to the extension did not focus on the duration of copyrights — the life of the creator plus 70 years for individual works and 95 years from publication for copyrights held by corporations. Instead, they argued that retroactive application of the 20-year extension to existing copyrights was a giveaway that violated the intent of the Constitution.

However, Ginsburg wrote that the extension was evenhanded since it applied to all copyright holders. In any event, she said, “the wisdom of Congress' action, however, is not within our province to second-guess” because the Constitution itself gave Congress broad discretion and the court only a very limited role in the area of intellectual property.

Breyer, in his dissent, wrote the extension’s “practical effect is not to promote, but to inhibit, the progress of ‘science’— by which word the framers meant learning or knowledge,” he said.

And while the Constitution speaks of granting copyright to “authors,” he continued, the effect of the extension “is to grant the extended term not to authors, but to their heirs, estates or corporate successors.”

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