In a defeat for internet publishers and others who wanted to make old books available online without paying high royalties, the Supreme Court on Jan. 15 upheld lengthier copyrights protecting the profits of songs, books, and even cartoon characters.

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.

In a 7-2 decision, justices said the copyright extension, named for the late Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Calif., was neither unconstitutional overreaching by Congress, nor a violation of constitutional free-speech rights. The Constitution “gives Congress wide leeway to prescribe ‘limited times’ for copyright protection and allows Congress to secure the same level and duration of protection for all copyright holders, present, and future,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench.

A contrary ruling would have cost entertainment giants like The Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner Inc. hundreds of millions of dollars. AOL Time Warner had said that would threaten copyrights for such movies as “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Gone With the Wind.”

The ruling will affect movie studios and heirs of authors and composers. It also will affect small music publishers, orchestras, and even school bands and drama clubs that must pay royalties to perform some pieces.

The Bush administration defended the extension, telling the court that while justices may personally disagree with the latest extension, Congress had the authority to pass it.

Congress passed the copyright law after heavy lobbying from companies with lucrative copyrights.

The Constitution allows Congress to give authors and inventors the exclusive right to their works for a “limited” time, and during oral arguments in the case in October some justices seemed to question whether the extension fit that requirements.

The majority in the court’s Jan. 15 ruling, however, ultimately found that Congress was within its rights.

“We find that the [extension] is a rational enactment; we are not at liberty to second-guess congressional determinations and policy judgments of this order, however debatable or arguably unwise they may be,” the court said.

Congress has repeatedly lengthened the terms of copyrights over the years. 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.

Eric Eldred challenged the copyright extension, which he said unfairly limits what he can make available on a public web library he runs.

The extension “protects authors’ original expression from unrestricted exploitation,” Ginsburg wrote in rejecting Eldred’s free-speech claims. “Protection of that order does not raise the free speech concerns present when government compels or burdens the communication of particular facts or ideas.”

“I was disappointed in the decision,” Eldred said from his home in Derry, N.H. “It seems like it’s giving an open license to Congress to keep those works locked up perpetually.”

Eldred had started his web site in 1995 when his daughters were reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlett Letter” in school. He decided to post the book on the internet with hyperlinks to allow students and other visitors to learn the definitions of unfamiliar words as they read.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer sharply disagreed with their colleagues.

Stevens wrote that the court was “failing to protect the public interest in free access to the products of inventive and artistic genius.”

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

Copyright holders stand to collect about $400 million more a year from older creations under the extension, Breyer 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, he added.

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


Supreme Court of the United States