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Literary publisher sues to overturn 1998 copyright law

By Adam Clayton Powell III


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Online book publisher Eldritch Press filed suit against the 1998 revisions to U.S. copyright law last week, claiming the new law gives copyright holders unconstitutional claims over works that in some cases should become classics available free to everyone.

At issue is the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended copyright rules to work written as long as 95 years ago.

Originally, Congress had set copyright terms at 28 years and had gradually lengthened it until, before the 1998 act became law last October, it was 75 years — after which time works entered the public domain.

Eric Eldred, who operates the free Eldritch Press Web site, says his site promotes public education and science, the precise goals enumerated in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution in its copyright provision.

"The Constitution expressly confined Congress's powers in this area to laws that conferred such grants solely for limited periods of time," argued Eldred's complaint (emphasis in original).

"[A]s a direct result of the chilling effect of laws regarding copyright and the Internet passed by the U.S. Congress," Eldred said last fall, "we no longer see a future for us as individuals to construct a free public library for the world on the Internet."

The new law was also opposed by operators of other literary Web sites, by leading scientists in a letter to the White House, and by the American Library Association.

"What we are worried about here is that we have for the first time a prohibition on simply accessing information," Adam Eisgrau of the ALA told The New York Times. "In the past, the law has punished you on how you used that information."

"The only people who will benefit from this act," Eldred told Wired.com, "are distant heirs of the author and publishing companies."

Among the works that squeaked by just under the wire when the law was passed were Ulysses, by James Joyce, and Samuel Butler's translation of Homer's Odyssey.

But also affected are major Hollywood studios, which lobbied vigorously for the new law.

"We call it the 'Steamboat Willie' rule, after the first Mickey Mouse cartoon in 1928" Eldritch co-counsel Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University told CNET, noting Disney will now have an additional 20 years of copyright protection for the film.

And the law was specifically designed to protect old Hollywood movies and music from being seen or heard in other countries without payments being made to the studios.

"This gives us enough confidence that our ability to use the digital domain to encrypt, encode and scramble our works can truly protect our properties," said Time Warner senior vice president Tim Boggs, the company's chief lobbyist, in a Los Angeles Times story headlined "Company Town: Congress Puts Power behind Hollywood's Goals."