By Dennis Crouch
Golan v. Holder (Supreme Court 2011)
As widely expected, the Supreme Court today affirmed a lower court ruling that the "Copyright Clause" of the U.S. Constitution does not prevent Congress from providing copyright protection to public domain works. As also expected, Justice Breyer (joined by Justice Alito) dissented from the 6-2 decision.
The case was filed after Congress restored the copyrights to a thousands of foreign-authored works that had fallen into the public domain based upon the authors' failures to observes pre-Berne Convention formalities such as registration and notice ©. Many of the restored works had been known to be in the public domain for decades before the 1994 passage of the statute – the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. (Picasso's 1937 Guernica painting reproduced without a license below is an example of a work whose copyright was restored by the statute). The Supreme Court opinion is written as a further extension of the 2003 Eldred decision that affirmed Congressional power to extend copyright by an additional 20-years as part of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA). I had suggested to my students last semester that the best conceivable outcome for petitioners would be that the Court would determine that heightened scrutiny should apply to adjudge the free speech impact of the expansion of copyright law. However, the court also rejected that path.
The Supreme Court opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg rejected the three primary arguments made by petitioners:
The Court held that allowing works from the public domain to be later copyrighted does not result in the potential for perpetual copyright in violation of the "limited terms" language of the Constitution. In its opinion, the court rejected any notion that the public has a "vested" right in works from the public domain. "Once the term of protection ends, the works do not revest in any rightholder. Instead, the works simply lapse into the public domain."
The purpose of copyright law – to "promote the Progress of Science" – should be broadly interpreted to include both promotion of the creation of new work as well as promotion of knowledge and learning more generally. And, inducing of the dissemination of existing works is a permissible means to promote science. In addition, providing for access to foreign markets by acceding to treaty obligations can also provide an incentive for creation of new works and therefore promote the progress.
In Eldred, the free speech rights embodied by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution do not limit Congress from modifying copyright law within its "traditional contours." Petitioners argued that the removal of elements from the public domain was outside of these traditional contours and that, under Eldred, the Supreme Court should use a heightened level of scrutiny to determine whether the new law offends free speech concerns. The Court rejected that analysis based upon its conclusion that Congress has, on several occasions, removed elements from the public domain and that, therefore, this action is within the traditional contours of copyright policy. In addition, the Court held that the impact of the particular law at issue was simply to place the foreign works in the copyright position that they would have occupied if the current copyright regime had been in place at the time. From that perspective, the new law fits well within the traditional contours of copyright law.
Impact on Patent Law: Copyright and patent share the same constitutional underpinnings and each is purposed to "promote the Progress" of their respective fields. This leads me to the conclusion that the reasoning in Golan would be equally applicable to Congressional expansions of patent law. In its decision, the Court explicitly refers to historic patent restoration bills as "informing" the inquiry into the scope of the clause as it applies to copyright. The converse should also be true. Thus, perhaps Congress would have authority to extend patent terms based upon a patentee's provision of data additional testing data or its promise to manufacture the product in the US.
An interesting caveat comes from the Court's 1996 Graham decision. That opinion includes the line that "Congress may not authorize the issuance of patents whose effects are to remove existent knowledge from the public domain, or to restrict free access to materials already available." In distinguishing that line, the Court wrote that the passage does not speak "to the constitutional limits on Congress' copyright and patent authority" but instead it addresses "an invention's very eligibility for patent protection." (quoting Eldred). The seeming distinction here is that Congress has more latitude in determining patent (and copyright) term or duration and less latitude in determining subject matter eligibility.
In dissent, Justice Breyer wrote, inter alia, that the "newness" requirement has always been a necessary and fundamental element of intellectual property (copyright and patent) protection. This newness requirement is offended by allowing copyright protection to be offered for works created long ago and already known to be in the public domain.
The political setup of this case is somewhat interesting because the government's pro-property position could be conceived as the conservative approach while Golan's more liberal position is suggesting that anyone should be able to use these works without payment to the creator. At the same time, the liberal Golan's legal argument was based upon the traditionally conservative suggestion of strong Constitutional limits on the powers of the federal government.
At several points in this article I would have linked to Wikipedia, but the site is not generally available today because of its ongoing protest against an expansion of intellectual property law that would require services such as Wikipedia and Google to remove links to sources of pirated material.