Citation[edit | edit source]

Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186, 65 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1225 (2003) (full-text).

Factual Background[edit | edit source]

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act is the 1998 law that added 20 years to the duration of copyright. As a result of the Act, copyrights to pre-1978 works that would have lasted 75 years from their first publication now last 95 years; and copyrights to 1978 and more recent works whose copyrights would have lasted for the lives of their authors plus 50 years now last for the lives of their authors plus 70 years.

The constitutionality of the Act was challenged by Eric Eldred, the creator of a website that features public domain materials, and by other publishers of public domain materials. The case was dismissed by a federal District Court, and that ruling was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

Nevertheless, when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, it was a matter of significant concern to copyright owners. As things turned out, the Supreme Court saw the issue just the way the lower courts had.

U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings[edit | edit source]

In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (writing for a seven-Justice majority), the Court held that the Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution did not bar Congress from extending the duration of copyrights, even though that Clause gave Congress the power to protect literary and other works only for "limited times." Eldred argued that Congress violated the "limited times" provision by repeatedly extending the duration of copyright protection for works already in existence, as well as for newly-created works.

Justice Ginsburg disagreed, however, explaining that "a page of history is worth a pound of logic." The history she referred to was Congress' long-standing practice — reaching back to the original federal copyright statute — of extending the copyright terms for existing as well as new works, without controversy. Congress also has extended the terms of existing patents, and its power to do that has been specifically upheld by appellate courts.

Justice Ginsburg found that it was rational for Congress to pass the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, because five years earlier, the European Union extended its copyrights for an additional 20 years and offered to do likewise for copyrights from the United States (and other nations), provided the U.S. extended its protection for European works by an additional 20 years. "By extending the baseline United States copyright term to life plus 70 years, Congress sought to ensure that American authors would receive the same copyright protection in Europe as their European counterparts," she explained. In addition, the term extension was rational because it gives copyright owners an incentive to restore and distribute their older works.

In rejecting Eldred's First Amendment argument, Justice Ginsburg noted that "The Copyright Clause and First Amendment were adopted close in time. This proximity indicates that, in the Framers' view, copyright's limited monopolies are compatible with free speech principles." What's more, copyright accommodates free speech, the Justice reasoned, because copyright protects only expression, not ideas or facts, and because the Copyright Act even permits the "fair use" of some expression.

Justices Stevens and Breyer dissented.

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