Supreme Court Upholds Extended Copyrights

The Supreme Court sidestepped a confrontation with Congress over longer copyright protections for cartoon characters, songs, books and other creations worth billions of dollars.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court sidestepped a confrontation with Congress over longer copyright protections for cartoon characters, songs, books and other creations worth billions of dollars.

Companies like The Walt Disney Co. were relieved at Wednesday’s 7-2 court ruling, which upheld a 20-year copyright extension. Other groups and Internet publishers were disappointed that the court did not use the case to stop Congress from repeatedly extending copyrights.

Hundreds of thousands of books, movies and songs were close to being released into the public domain when Congress extended the copyright by 20 years in 1998 with a law named after the late Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Calif.

The Supreme Court said the law was neither unconstitutional overreaching by Congress, nor a violation of free-speech rights.

“The winners are folks who hold valuable copyrights. The losers are everyone else,” said Erik S. Jaffe, a Washington attorney who filed arguments in the case. “Everyone is going to pay more for things they would have had for cheap or free.”

New Hampshire Internet site publisher Eric Eldred, who challenged the extension, said the decision “seems like it’s giving an open license to Congress to keep those works locked up perpetually.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the court was “not at liberty to second-guess congressional determinations and policy judgments of this order, however debatable or arguably unwise they may be.”

But Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer sharply disagreed.

“The serious public harm and the virtually nonexistent public benefit could not be more clear,” Breyer wrote in his dissent.

Copyright holders stand to collect about $400 million more a year from older creations under the extension, he said. The limit on the use of information “threatens to interfere with efforts to preserve our nation’s historical and cultural heritage” and to educate children, Breyer added.

A contrary ruling would have caused huge losses for entertainment companies like Disney and AOL Time Warner Inc. AOL Time Warner had said an adverse ruling would threaten copyrights for such movies as “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind.”

Breyer said AOL Time Warner also owns the copyright of the song “Happy Birthday to You.”

Also at risk of expiration was protection for the version of Mickey Mouse portrayed in Disney’s earliest films, such as 1928’s “Steamboat Willie.”

The ruling will affect movie studios and heirs of authors and composers. It will also affect small music publishers, orchestras and church choirs that must pay royalties to perform some pieces.

Disney spokeswoman Michelle Bergman said the decision “ensures copyright owners the proper incentive to originate creative works for the public to enjoy.”

Members of Congress, as expected, were pleased.

“The copyright and related industries employ millions of American workers, and its vitality is critical to our national economy,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said: “This decision demonstrates this country’s commitment to encouraging authorship and free expression.”

The Constitution allows Congress to give authors and inventors the exclusive right to their works for a “limited” time.

Congress has repeatedly lengthened the terms of copyrights. Copyrights lasted only 14 years in 1790. With the challenged 1998 extension, the period is now 70 years after the death of the creator. Works owned by corporations are now protected for 95 years.

The case is Eldred v. Ashcroft, 01-618.


News Service: Associated Press


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