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Copyright protection to works in public domain

25th January, 2012

The United States Supreme Court has held that works in public domain were not excluded from copyright protection. In its decision dated 18th January, 2012, the Court held that the 1994 amendment to ensure conformity of copyright laws with the stipulations of Berne Convention does not violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 1994 amendment restored copyrights in respect of works from Berne Member countries where copyright was in force at the time of accession but did not enjoy copyright protection in US [Golan v. Holder, No. 10-545].  

The Court held that there was no restriction of right to speech as users of copyrighted material could still avail ‘fair use’ terms for research or education. Also, some restriction on expression is the inherent and intended effect of grant of a copyright. The ruling also observes that it is not only creation of new works which promote science or knowledge, rather dissemination is a better tool for achieving such end. Although post the impugned amendment users would have to acquire right to material at ‘market place’, it would also secure similar rights for US copyright holders in other markets.

According to majority view of the Court, the Congress did not exceed its powers under the Copyright Clause to ‘promote progress of science’ by securing limited times (of exclusivity) for authors. Drawing on legislative history and jurisprudence, the Court observed that copyright protection by Copyright Act of 1790 and patent protection [Evans v. Jordan, 9 Cranch 199 (1815)] had been granted in cases where none existed. It noted that the USA was bound to adhere to its obligations under the Berne Convention.

The dissenting view records that copyright is a monopoly right and restoration of rights rewarding persons like heirs, associations or persons who are not creators of the work unnecessarily raises cost of dissemination. Also it points out that Berne Convention does not require Congress to enact a statute that causes so much damage to public domain material and the US could have availed of the flexibility afforded by Article 18(3) to adopt a less restrictive method of compliance.
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