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OnlineSpecial: Supreme Court Watch
Online NewsHour Update: A preview of key cases facing the Supreme Court during the 2002/2003 term
Online NewsHour: Copyright Law
Can I Copy This? Posted:10.16.02
A current Supreme Court case will determine who has control over songs, movies and other creative works. The decision will have an impact on copyright laws for years to come.
What do Mickey Mouse, the novel The Great Gatsby, and the movie "The Jazz Singer" have in common? They are all creative works at the center of a huge legal storm before the Supreme Court.
Each of those entities has a copyright -- the exclusive right to sell, distribute and publish an artistic work -- that is about to expire. And a law passed in 1998 could extend their copyrights by 20 years, unless a band of Internet publishers, small businesses, and a choir director from Atlanta succeed in stopping it.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case, called Eldred v. Ashcroft. The judges' decision could have lasting effects on the arts and entertainment industry for decades to come.
Background on the case
A clause in the Constitution gives Congress the authority to grant copyrights for a "limited time." But in 1998, Congress passed a law that extended the terms for existing and future copyrights. That law became the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, named after the late congressman and singer-songwriter of the musical group Sonny and Cher.
The act extended protection by 20 years for cultural works copyrighted after January 1, 1923. Before the current law passed, individual copyrights would last for as long as the author was alive plus 50 years. The new law extended that to 70 years for individuals and from 75 to 90 years for corporations.
The law was bad news for Eric Eldred, the publisher of an e-book Web site called Eldritch Press. He reprinted out of date and classic novels on the Internet in what he hoped would become a "global public library."
Thousands of people visit Eldred's Web site every day. In 1997, the National Endowment for the Humanities recognized Eldritch Press as one of the 20 best literary sites on the Web.
However, under the new law, Eldred's project was severely limited. He could still post Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but Eldred had to remove Ring Lardner's short story "The Haircut" and hundreds of other books and stories from his site because these works were copyrighted after 1923.
So Eldred decided to join several others in a lawsuit that claims the Copyright Term Extension Act is unconstitutional.
What it means
Copyright laws control most of our entertainment, including books, movies, music and poetry. When a copyright expires the public could use that material without having to pay a fee or even get permission.
But under the Copyright Term Extension Act, owners maintain the right to charge fees or deny permission to use a work. The biggest supporters of these laws are companies, like Walt Disney, Inc and AOL-Time Warner with valuable copyrights set to expire. AOL Time Warner said if the act is abolished, it would threaten copyrights for movies like "Casablanca," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind."
"[The CTEA] provides incentives for the creation of new works and the continued preservation and restoration of older ones," said Jack Valenti, who represents the Motion Picture Association of America.
who are challenging the law say that Congress should not be able to
decide what creative material is available for public use, arguing that
most people would not be able to afford the fees. Even the Walt Disney
Company did not have to pay a fee when it used the Brothers Grimm Fairy
Tales for some of its early movies, they point out.
With so much at stake, industry leaders, artists and Internet entrepreneurs are anxiously awaiting the decision.
In a NewsHour with Jim Lehrer interview, Chicago Tribune Supreme Court reporter Jan Crawford Greenberg said that even the justices who seem sympathetic to Eldred and the others also "seemed very hesitant to go the next step and embrace those arguments that this extension violated the Constitution and the Constitution's copyright clause."
The landmark decision is expected next summer.
By Raven Tyler, NewsHour Extra
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