Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186; 123 S. Ct. 769; 154 L. Ed. 2d 683; 2003, U.S. LEXIS 751 (2003)

Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186; 123 S. Ct. 769; 154 L. Ed. 2d 683; 2003, U.S. LEXIS 751 (2003)

Facts—In the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), sometimes known as the Sonny Bono Law (in honor of a former California congress- man), Congress extended copyright protection from 50 to 70 years after an author’s death. It applied this extension not only to future works but also to those already in existence. The District Court and the District of Columbia Circuit Court both upheld the law against charges that it violated the prohibition against copyrights in perpetuity or the First Amendment.

Question—Does the retroactive extension of copyright protection violate congressional powers in Article I, Section 8 to grant copyrights for “limited times” or the First Amendment?


ReasonsJ. Ginsburg (7–2). Article I, Section 8 grants Congress power “[t]o promote the Progress of Science . . . by securing [to Authors] for limited Times . . . the exclusive Right to their . . . Writings.” Throughout its history, Congress has applied new copyright laws both to existing and future works. In this case such legislation served not only to equalize treatments of new and old copyrights but also to equalize U.S. practice with that of other nations. This was not a case where Congress was attempting to evade the “limited Times” requirement by “stringing together ‘an unlimited number of “Limited Times.”’” Judgment as to the appropriate time period for a copyright was primarily a legislative decision to which the judiciary should give deference. In contrast to patents, copyrights do not grant a monopoly on an idea but only on particular expressions of this idea; moreover, copyright law permits fair use. The Framers regarded limited grants of monopoly as consistent with First Amendment rights for which it further provided under the fair-use doctrine.

J. Stevens and J. Breyer authored dissents arguing that the extension of copyright to existing works was inconsistent with the promotion of scientific progress and qualifying the Court’s interpretation of the historical record and of past precedents.

Note—This decision had the effect, among others, of extending Disney’s claims to Mickey Mouse likenesses and to claims of film studios for old movies.

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