A number of press reports have given the impression that the Colorado District Court’s ruling in Golan v. Holder (fn1) means that that Federal laws reviving expired copyrights violate First Amendment protections on free speech. The actual ruling is far narrower.
In 1993, Congress enacted 17 U.S.C. Section 104A, to permit foreign authors whose copyrights had fallen into the public domain for technical reasons (such as by failing to renew the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office) to restore their copyrights. Section 104A solely permitted “restoration” of copyright protection for works from “a nation other than the United States.” (fn2) Section 104A was added after the United States joined the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works — a treaty first enacted in 1886, but not joined by the U.S. until 1988. Article 18 of the Convention requires member nations to provide copyright protections to works by foreign authors so long as the term of protection in the country of origin has not expired as to the work.
The plaintiffs were U.S. artists who used works by foreign artists that had been in the public domain before 1994, such as Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” The plaintiffs claimed that after Section 104A was enacted, they were subjected to higher performance fees, sheet music rentals and other royalties. In some cases, these costs were prohibitive. (fn3)
The Golan case was the brainchild of Stanford Law professor, founder and co-director of the Center for Internet and Society and Director of the Fair Use Project, Lawrence Lessig. The original complaint claimed that Section 104A shrunk the public domain and thereby violated the limitations on congressional power inherent in the Copyright Clause, and violated First Amendment rights to free expression. The Colorado District Court originally rejected these claims. However, on appeal, the Tenth Circuit found that a legitimate First Amendment claim existed and remanded the case for First Amendment analysis.
The basis for the Tenth Circuit’s ruling was the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Eldred v. Ashcroft (fn4), in which the Supreme Court stated that a Congressional act modifying copyright law might be subject to First Amendment scrutiny if it “altered the traditional contours of copyright protection.” (fn5) While the Tenth Circuit could not find federal authority that explained the phrase “traditional contours”, it concluded that the traditional contours of copyright protection included the principle that “works in the public domain remain there.” (fn6) It based this on the notion that the general sequence is that copyrighted works has always progressed from “1) creation; 2) to copyright; 3) to the public domain” and that Section 104A changed this sequence. (fn7)