High Court’s ruling deals a blow to web publishers

In a defeat for internet publishers and others who wanted to make old creative works 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. A contrary ruling would have cost entertainment giants like The Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner Inc. hundreds of millions of dollars.

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—which passed the copyright law after heavy lobbying from companies with lucrative copyrights—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. “I was disappointed in the decision,” he 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.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer sharply disagreed with his colleagues.

“The serious public harm and the virtually nonexistent public benefit could not be more clear,” he wrote, adding that 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.

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