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High Court Upholds Copyright Law For Foreign Works

Publication Date: 
January 19, 2012
Daily Journal
Robert Iafolla

Executive Director of the Fair Use Project Anthony Falzone spoke with Robert Iafolla of the Daily Journal over the outcome of Golan v. Holder, a Supreme Court case that gave legal protection to foreign works that had previously been available in the public domain.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a copyright law Wednesday giving legal protection to millions of works by foreign authors that had been available for use free of charge.

The court ruled 6-2 that Congress has the authority to take works out of the public domain.

The law at issue was passed to implement an international intellectual property treaty by granting copyrights to foreign works, like Igor Stravinsky's symphonies and Pablo Picasso's paintings, that have that protection in their country of origin. A coalition including composers, archivists and academics fought the law, losing at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before challenging it at the Supreme Court. Golan v. Holder , 10-545.


But Anthony T. Falzone, head of Stanford Law School's Fair Use Project and an advocate for the coalition opposing the law, said the opinion emphasizes that the law gives foreign works protection for the time remaining before their copyright terms would expire. Copyrights generally last for 70 years after the author's death.

"That's different than saying Congress has the power to take Mark Twain out of the public domain," Falzone continued. "I don't think you can take that from this decision."

At the oral argument last October, Falzone asserted it would be unprecedented to remove so many works from the public domain. But the opinion points to other instances when Congress applied legal protections to works that had been freely available. A chief example mentioned is the 1790 law that launched the uniform national system of copyrights.