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Supreme Court backs Congress' copyright extension

By The Associated Press

01.15.03

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today upheld lengthier copyrights protecting the profits of songs, books and cartoon characters — a huge victory for Disney and other companies.

The 7-2 ruling, while not unexpected, was a blow to Internet publishers and others who wanted to make old books available online and use the likenesses of a Mickey Mouse cartoon and other old creations without paying high royalties.

Hundreds of thousands of books, movies and songs were close to being released into the public domain when Congress extended the copyright by 20 years in 1998.

Justices said the copyright extension, named for the late Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Calif., was constitutional.

The Constitution "gives Congress wide leeway to prescribe 'limited times' for copyright protection and allows Congress to secure the same level and duration of protection for all copyright holders, present and future," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said from the bench.

A contrary ruling in Eldred v. Ashcroft would have cost entertainment giants like the Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner Inc. hundreds of millions of dollars. AOL Time Warner had said that would threaten copyrights for such movies as "Casablanca," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind."

Also at risk of expiration was protection for the version of Mickey Mouse portrayed in Disney's earliest films, such as 1928's "Steamboat Willie."

Congress passed the copyright law after heavy lobbying from companies with lucrative copyrights.

During the oral argument in the case last October, some justices seemed bothered by the retroactive extension but were concerned about their standing to overturn it.

The Constitution allows Congress to give authors and inventors the exclusive right to their works for a "limited" time.

Congress has repeatedly lengthened the terms of copyrights over the years. Copyrights lasted only 14 years in 1790. With the challenged 1998 extension, the period is now 70 years after the death of the creator. Works owned by corporations are now protected for 95 years.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer disagreed with their colleagues.

Stevens wrote that the Court was "failing to protect the public interest in free access to the products of inventive and artistic genius."

Ruling in highway-safety records case
In other Court action, the justices ruled 9-0 yesterday that state and local governments do not have to release information collected about dangerous intersections under a federal highway-safety law. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court, said Congress recognized that local officials would be reluctant to compile the information if the data could then be used against them in lawsuits.

The law "was not intended to be an effort-free tool in litigation against state and local governments," Thomas wrote.

The decision means a county in Washington state does not have to release some of the information it had about a dangerous intersection to a man suing over an accident in which his wife was killed.

The Supreme Court said, however, that the county could only withhold data collected to comply with the law. Pierce County had wanted the Court to give broader protection to local governments facing lawsuits and demands for highway records.

The ruling involves just part of the case, which goes back to court in Washington for more consideration.

The case is Pierce County v. Guillen, 01-1229.

Previous

High court hears arguments in case of Congress, copyright and Mickey Mouse
Justices are considering whether it was unconstitutional for Congress to give writers, other creators a 20-year copyright extension on their works.  10.09.02

Related

Government lawyers urge Supreme Court to keep traffic data secret
But attorney for family of woman killed in 1996 accident says it is 'completely unreasonable' for police reports, other information to be withheld.  11.05.02

Supreme Court downplays First Amendment argument in copyright ruling
Analysis In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer writes that copyright-extension law 'will cause serious expression-related harm.'  01.16.03

A constitutional clash: free speech, copyrights and Mickey Mouse
By Ken Paulson In a society immersed in popular culture, copyrighted materials should be fair game for discussion, exploration and teaching.  10.20.02

Copyright extensions put profits ahead of the public
By Ken Paulson How a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision may affect the balance between copyright protection and free speech for decades.  01.26.03

2002-2003 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of 2002-2003 U.S. Supreme Court term.  10.07.02

Showdown between copyright, First Amendment turns into sideshow
Analysis Oral arguments before high court instead focus on whether Congress overstepped its authority in passing 20-year copyright extension.  10.10.02

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