High court upholds copyrights on foreign works
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WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a federal law that gave copyright protection to millions of foreign-produced books, movies and musical pieces and may undermine Google's effort to create an online library.
The 6-2 ruling takes works by Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and J.R.R. Tolkien out of the public domain, barring use without permission of the copyright owner. The decision is a victory for the film and music industries and a setback for Google, which had said it would lose access to many of the 15 million books it wants to make available online.
The justices rejected arguments from orchestra conductors, educators, performers, film archivists and movie distributors. They argued that the 1994 law violates the constitutional provision that lets Congress set up a copyright system, as well as the Constitution's free-speech guarantee.
The law "lies well within the ken of the political branches," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissented, and Justice Elena Kagan didn't take part in the case.
The statute aimed to harmonize U.S. copyright law with rules in other countries. The measure applied to works that had been excluded from the U.S. copyright system for various reasons -- in some cases, because the United States didn't have copyright relations with the author's home country and, in other cases, because the United States hadn't yet recognized copyrights on sound recordings.
The law gave rights-holders the copyright protection they otherwise would not have had. Affected works include Tolkien's "The Hobbit," hundreds of Picasso paintings, several Hitchcock films and the music of Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich and other Russian composers.
Congress approved the law to meet obligations stemming from the so-called Uruguay Round of international trade talks. The motion-picture and music industries pushed for the provision to secure reciprocal copyright protection for Americans' works abroad.
"Congress determined that U.S. interests were best served by our full participation in the dominant system of international copyright protection," Justice Ginsburg wrote.
The Obama administration defended the law, arguing that Congress has the constitutional power to remove works from the public domain.
Google spokesman Jim Prosser didn't immediately return a phone call for comment. In court papers, Google said the law might affect as many as a million books the company has already scanned as part of its book project.
In his dissent, Justice Breyer said the law went beyond Congress' constitutional power to confer copyrights for the purpose of promoting science and knowledge. The law "does not encourage anyone to produce a single new work," he wrote. "By definition, it bestows monetary rewards only on owners of old works -- works that have already been created and already are in the American public domain."
Justice Breyer said copyright owners often would be difficult or impossible to track down, particularly in cases involving older and more obscure works that have minimal commercial value.
Even if would-be users can track down the copyright owners, they may face other obstacles, said lawyer Anthony Falzone, who represented the law's challengers.
"It's not always just a matter of writing a check," he said. "Copyright owners can say, 'No, we don't want you to do that. Forget about price -- we don't want you to do it.' "
First Published January 19, 2012 12:00 am