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January 23, 2012
On the Dissent in Golan v Holder
On Justia Verdict today Julie Hilden posted an interesting analysis of the Breyer dissent in Golan v Holder which I think is worth noting for a couple points.
First, she correctly emphasizes that the works in question are not your traditional public domain works. In traditional cases works come into the public domain because their copyrights legally expire. In this case the works in question were considered public domain erroneously, and only because the US did not abide by its treaty obligations, specifically the Berne Convention's Article 18. Under that Article, the US should have implemented copyright regulations that protected certain foreign works as they were protected overseas. Eventually the US did that in the so-called Uruguay Rounds Agreement Act and that Act is what was challenged in this case.
As you probably know, the case went to Holder (that is, the US Government) by a 6-2 decision. The Court saw no problem in placing works under copyright that were previously treated as public domain. Following much of the reasoning in Eldred v Ashcroft the Court majority saw no First Amendment problem, nor a copyright statute problem. This has led to some fears in the blogosphere that Congress will now feel it has a green light to claw back other public domain works. Whether this is a new green light or just an acknowledgement of what the government has been doing since 1790 depends on which side's arguments and briefs you read.
The major point of focus of Hilden's column, and one that I think has a particular chord for Copyfighters, is that in his dissent Breyer focused less on the holders of copyrights than on the original creators. Without someone doing creative work, he reasons, there is nothing to copyright and thus the prefatory language — to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts — in the Constitution that creates copyrights in the first place deserves more respect.
Breyer (joined by Alito) would have the Court adopt a more utilitarian calculus: if a copyright restriction would promote more works then it should pass Constitutional muster. If it would instead prove more restrictive and lead to less creation then it runs counter to the very reason that copyright exists and so cannot pass Constitutional muster. This has been my belief for some time. I think the past century has seen the balance of power swing vastly in favor of copyright holders and against creators, but Breyer's argument helps me believe there is still hope for a reasoned argument to restoring a more equal balance.
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