The Daily Parker

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Public domain isn't necessarily permanent: SCOTUS

Via reader HF, the Supreme Court today decided Golan v Holder (pdf), in which the court held 6-2 that Congress was within its authority to restore copyright protection to some foreign works that had formerly lapsed into the public domain in the U.S.

Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg said: "Neither the Copyright and Patent Clause nor the First Amendment, we hold, makes the public domain, in any and all cases, a territory that works may never exit."

I'm still digesting the opinion, but let me say on first reading that it does not give Congress blanket authorization to restore copyright to works in the public domain, despite Wired's alarmist article. The circumstances of this case seem clear, well-defined, and narrow. Only works that never left copyright protection in the country where the work or the author came from, but lapsed into public domain in the U.S., are covered. Also, the decision only applies prospectively, so that authors whose works were copied or performed here during the lapse period will not require retroactive royalty payments. And the works will, in due course, return to the public domain, in most cases 70 years after the author's death.

To give an example: the works of Sergei Prokofiev, which generally went into the public domain in the U.S. 28 years after he wrote them, will return to copyright protection until 70 years after his death; i.e., at the end of 2023. But none of the recordings of his music made before today are affected. (Clarification: copies that exist as of this morning are not affected; any copies made from today forward are.)

Also, with the merciful strangling of SOPA this afternoon, the Copyright Police aren't going to block the iTunes store on suspicion of harboring "Peter and the Wolf." (Youporn, on the other hand, probably shouldn't have that one to begin with.)

Congress enacted the law in question to ensure that U.S. copyright holders get the same protection from other WTO members that other countries' authors get from us. Of course, who many of those copyright holders are, and the way they cling pathetically to an obsolete business model the way rats cling to flotsam in the ocean, is a different matter entirely. I recommend Lawrence Lessig's thoughts on SOPA to get you riled up about that problem.

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