US Supreme Court Rules On Golan v. Holder, Key Public Domain Case

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The United States Supreme Court today ruled on one of the top intellectual property legal cases expected this year. The case questioned whether the US Congress acted constitutionally when it restored copyright to millions of foreign works that had been in the public domain in the US. And it affirmed Congress’ actions, allowing the US to avoid questions of compliance with its international obligations.

The 18 January decision is here [pdf]. The justices ruled 6 to 2 in favour.

The case was considered one of the most important intellectual property law issues to be addressed in 2012 (IPW, IP Law, 13 January 2012).

Congress granted the copyright restoration in 1994, in order to comply with US obligations under the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). But concerns arose that when it removed works from the public domain, Congress exceeded “the traditional contours of copyright protection” and violated the free speech rights of users of the works.

The US Supreme Court has greatly limited First Amendment challenges to US copyright law. Another key case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, allows such challenges only if Congress alters “the traditional contours of copyright protection.”

The rights to millions of works by foreign authors were at stake, including numerous famous works by authors and artists from the 20th century. If the US Supreme Court struck down the copyright restoration, the United States might have been found in violation of its obligations under TRIPS. The Supreme Court heard oral argument for this case in October.

A federal district court ruled in 2009 that the copyright restoration violated the US Constitution First Amendment on free speech, potentially putting the United States in violation of its obligations under the Berne Convention and the WTO.

For a full background on the case from Intellectual Property Watch, see here (IPW, IP Law, 8 May 2009)

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) reacted positively to the outcome. “The MPAA is pleased that the Supreme Court has again ruled that strong copyright protection is the ‘engine of free expression’ and fully consistent with the First Amendment,* Fritz Attaway, Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Advisor, said in a statement. “Today’s ruling demonstrates that the United States fulfills its international copyright obligations and will remain a world leader in protecting creative works, thereby helping foster their continued creation and dissemination.”

The decision is “particularly significant,” Attaway said, “because the Supreme Court has specifically recognized that the underlying purpose of copyright protection is not only to incentivize the creation of new works, but also to encourage their distribution.”

William New may be reached at wnew@ip-watch.ch.

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  1. [...] US Supreme Court Rules On Golan v. Holder, Key Public Domain Case “The United States Supreme Court today ruled on one of the top intellectual property legal cases expected this year. The case questioned whether the US Congress acted constitutionally when it restored copyright to millions of foreign works that had been in the public domain in the US. And it affirmed Congress’ actions, allowing the US to avoid questions of compliance with its international obligations.” http://www.ip-watch.org/2012/01/18/us-supreme-court-rules-on-golan-v-holder-key-public-domain-case/ [...]

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