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Golan v. Holder: A Victory for Copyright

By Christine A. Pepe

On the heels of Congress' shelving of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), the Supreme Court's January 18, 2012 Golan v. Holder decision represents a glimmer of hope that protection of copyright is not dead and can co-exist with the First Amendment.

In Golan v. Holder, the petitioners (conductors, musicians, publishers and others who exploited certain works that entered the public domain), challenged the constitutionality of Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) , which is now codified in the Copyright Act as 17 U.S.C. ยงยง104A, 109. Section 514 offered restored copyright protection to certain categories of works that are protected in their countries of origin but lack protection in the U.S. Many of such works fell into the U.S. public domain due largely to a failure to comply with certain arcane formalities unique to American copyright law as it existed at the time. Section 514 contains some built-in protections to cushion the impact of the restoration on certain reliance parties, e.g., the parties that exploited the works thought to be in the public domain. In broad terms, these protections include a notice requirement, removing liability for use of foreign works prior to the notice of restoration, and allowing reliance parties to continue to use the restored works for one year following notice.

Importantly, Section 514 was enacted in response to a mandate by the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that the U.S. fully comply with its obligations as a member of the Berne Convention. Initially, when the U.S. first became a member of Berne in 1989, Congress adopted a minimalist approach to compliance. For example, despite Berne's instruction that member countries protect foreign works under copyright in the country of origin, U.S. law provided no protection for foreign works that fell into the public domain in the U.S. but remained protected in their countries of origin. Beginning in 1994, however, TRIPS required compliance with Berne under penalty of World Trade Organization (WTO) enforcement. At this time, it became clear that many Berne member countries were outraged at the United States' refusal to grant protection to foreign works that remained protected in their countries of origin. On top of this, several countries balked at protecting U.S. works that remained under copyright in the U.S. but not abroad--until the U.S. reciprocated. It was against this backdrop that Congress passed Section 514.

The Supreme Court rejected petitioners' argument that in removing certain works from the public domain, Congress violated the Copyright Clause's confinement of copyright to a "limited time." Notably, the Court stated: "In aligning the United States with other nations bound by the Berne Convention and thereby according equitable treatment to once disfavored foreign authors, Congress can hardly be charged with a design to move stealthily toward a regime of perpetual copyrights." The Court relied heavily on its decision in Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003), where it rejected a similar argument that the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) was unconstitutional. The Court also dismissed petitioners' argument that the public domain was "inviolate," citing several historical examples where Congress protected works once freely available.

The Court also cast aside petitioners' claim that Section 514 fails to "promote the Progress of Science" as required by the Copyright Clause. Petitioners, and Justice Breyer in his dissent, urged that production of new works must always be a precondition to any grant of copyright; because Section 514, they argued, simply restricts the dissemination of old works, it does not promote the progress of science. As it did in Eldred, the Court refused to adopt such a singularly utilitarian view of copyright. The Court emphasized that Section 514 would expand the foreign markets available to U.S. authors, invigorate protection against piracy of U.S. works abroad, and as a result, ensure profitable international dissemination of existing and future U.S. works.

Finally, the Court declined to find that the restoration provisions of Section 514 trampled on the First Amendment. A content neutral statute, Section 514 must be upheld if "narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest." Drawing again in large part from Eldred, the Court concluded that because copyright's built-in First Amendment protections, specifically the idea/expression dichotomy and the fair use doctrine, remained unscathed, there was no need for heightened review. Section 514's stated purposes of ensuring compliance with international treaty obligations, securing greater protection for U.S. authors abroad and remedying unequal treatment of foreign authors, clearly satisfied First Amendment scrutiny. Moreover, given the various protections to reliance parties discussed above, Section 514 implemented a calibrated transition from a national scheme to an international copyright regime. The Court also responded to Justice Breyer's concern over the potential difficulty in identifying or locating copyright owners, especially with regard to orphan works. The Court concluded that the orphan works issue is not peculiar to works restored under Section 514 and should be addressed through legislative not judicial methods.

In the end, the Court reiterated its powerful words from Harper & Row, 471 U.S. 539 (1985), that copyright protection is not simply a "limit on the manner in which expressive works may be used"--it is also "an engine of free expression: By establishing a marketable right to the use of one's expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas." Overall, this decision represents a significant victory for creators and one that hopefully will resonate with Americans as they continue to be bombarded with uninformed messages that any copyright law impinges on their First Amendment rights.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 27, 2012 1:27 PM.

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