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Supreme Court upholds copyright law

Affirms return of copyright to foreign works once in public domain

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld Congress’ ability to extent copyright protection to works by foreign artists and authors that were previously in the public domain.

The high court ruled 6 to 2, with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself.

“Nothing in the historical record, congressional practice or our own jurisprudence warrants exceptional First Amendment solicitude for copyrighted works that were once in the public domain,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion.

Orchestra conductors, educators and homevid distributors challenged the constitutionality of a 1994 act of Congress that restored the copyrights, bringing it in line with earlier trade agreements. Perhaps millions of works were covered, and they had argued that the “entry of a work into the public domain must mark the end of protection, not an intermission.”

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, after the law was passed, notices were filed to restore copyrights on almost 50,000 works, including such Alfred Hitchcock titles as “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes,” Carol Reed classic “The Third Man” and a host of musical works and Mexican and Latin American films.

The content industry generally favored the restoration of copyrights. The MPAA filed an amicus brief in which it said that U.S. copyright holders could face “retaliatory measures” if the law was overturned, and the U.S. therefore did not honor the 1994 treaty and the Berne Convention, the international agreement in which countries recognize the copyright of works from other signatory countries.

“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,” Ginsburg wrote.