Literary publisher sues to overturn 1998 copyright law
By Adam Clayton Powell III
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
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
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."