Wired reports that the US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that congress may bestow copyrights to foreign-produced works that had never previously received a copyright in the US. This decision upholds Congress’ decision in 1994 to sign the Berne Convention, an international agreement set up to acknowledge other countries’ copywriting of foreign-produced materials, as well as to uphold US-issued copyrights in foreign countries. Since many foreign-produced works are still under copyright in their native countries, Congress has been granted the right to retroactively apply a copyright in the US to those materials.
This handy map shows the bigger picture across the globe, with European works holding copyrights for the lifetime of the creator plus an additional 70 years. This means that the films of Alfred Hitchcock (who died in 1980 and whose films’ copyrights are mainly held by Universal), for instance, are under copyright until 2050. Stravinsky’s work would be under copyright until 2021, 50 years after his death in 1971.
The ruling by the Supreme Court was in response to Golan v. Holder, a case brought forth by a collective of people who rely on foreign-produced materials previously not covered by copyright, such as educators and orchestras. The ruling significantly eliminates many of the works that these groups rely on for their livelihood and will prevent the general public from benefitting from their presentation, performance, and general availability in public places like libraries and the internet. Urgh!
The court decision came down 6-2 in favor of the plaintiffs, with Justices Alito (!) and Breyer dissenting and Kagen sitting this one out due to the fact that she worked on the case for the Justice Department before being promoted. Instead of keeping existing public domain works available for the public that relies on and benefits from them, the court potentially opened the door allowing congress to legislate copyrights. Since the only people who benefit from copyrights are copyright holders, even when the original producer of the works is long since dead, this ruling is blatantly favoring large corporations who are most likely to hold these copyrights. Despite the fact that the US Constitution says that congress shall define copyrights and patents “… for limited times…”, this is an unfortunate part of a long pattern of dragging out copyrights on recorded audio and video works. Good job, America.