Supreme Court upholds Congress' authority to restore lapsed foreign copyrights

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Golan v. Holder [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that Congress has the authority under the Copyright Act [text] to restore copyright protection in foreign works where the work was never registered in the US and the full copyright term has expired. Plaintiffs challenged § 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act of 1994 (URAA) [text], which restored copyright protection to thousands of foreign works that had previously been in the public domain. Plaintiffs argued that (1) the Progress Clause [Art I, § 8, cl 8 text] of the US Constitution prohibits Congress from taking works out of the public domain; and (2) that § 514 violates the First Amendment [text] because taking works out of the public domain inhibits free speech. However, the Supreme Court stated that Congress was right to seek harmonization with international law:

Congress determined that U.S. interests were best served by our full participation in the dominant system of international copyright protection. Those interests include ensuring exemplary compliance with our international obligations, securing greater protection for U. S. authors abroad, and remedying unequal treatment of foreign authors. The judgment § 514 expresses lies well within the ken of the political branches.
The Supreme Court held that § 514 of the URAA does not exceed Congress' authority because the Copyright Clause does not specifically exclude extending copyright protection to works that are already in the public domain. The plaintiffs argued that § 514 violated the Progress Clause because protecting works that were already in the public domain does not "promote the progress of science and useful arts" because the intent of copyright protection was to incentivize the creation of new works, not to protect works which have already been created. However, the court held that "[t]he creation of new works ... is not the sole way Congress may promote ... knowledge and learning." Finally, the court held that §514 does not violate the First Amendment because copyright protection has "built-in First Amendment accommodations," such as the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use defense, and that there is nothing in the historical record, congressional practice or the Supreme Court's jurisprudence which renders works in the public domain untouchable by Congress. The ruling affirms the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit's judgment that § 514 of the URAA did not violate the Constitution, overturning the district court's grant of summary judgment for the petitioners.

In December 2010, the Supreme Court split 4-4 [JURIST report] on the issue of copyright protection for imported goods. The case presented the question of whether the first-sale doctrine [17 USC § 109(a)], which provides that the owner of any particular copy "lawfully made under this title" may resell that good without the authority of the copyright holder, applies to imported goods manufactured abroad. Because of the split, with Justice Elena Kagan recused, the ruling of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] that the first-sale doctrine does not apply to imported goods was affirmed, although the decision does not establish controlling precedent.

 

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