Supreme Court Gives the Go Ahead for Re-Copyrighting Public Domain WorksS

You've got to be kidding me. The US Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Congress can remove works from the public domain and re-copyright them in order to bring the the pieces into compliance with international copyright schemes. Yeah, because that doesn't run completely against the spirit of copyright law or anything.

For one reason or another, the American copyright protections of many famous, foreign works—including H.G. Wells' Things to Come, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and Peter and the Wolf, Shostakovich's Symphony 14, Cello Concerto and everything by Igor Stravinsky—moved into the public domain despite still being copyrighted overseas. To "correct" this issue, Congress passed legislation in 1994 that would move the works in question back to protected status and comply with the Berne Convention, an international copyright treaty.

This week, the Supreme Court ruled on a case brought by a coalition of educators, performers, and film archivists who rely on public domain works such as these for their livelihoods. If these pieces are place back under copyright, this group (like everybody else) simply can't use them. However in a 6-2 ruling—Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissenting—the Court ruled that bringing these works into agreement with the international treaty did not violate the First Amendment rights of those people using the works as they are now (no, those folks will just have to pay licensing fees to perform), nor does it set a precedent for Congress to eventually push for perpetual copyright protections.

In his dissent, Justice Breyer stated that the congressional legislation,

bestows monetary rewards only on owners of old works in the American public domain. At the same time, the statute inhibits the dissemination of those works, foreign works published abroad after 1923, of which there are many millions, including films, works of art, innumerable photographs, and, of course, books - books that (in the absence of the statute) would assume their rightful places in computer-accessible databases, spreading knowledge throughout the world.

As Anthony Falzone, executive director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University commented, the ruling "suggests Congress is not required to pay particularly close attention to the interests of the public when it passes copyright laws." Well, yeah, it's Congress. They don't need to read bills and amendments, they don't need to represent their constituents. They just need to ensure hard-working people like Igor Stravinsky gets the royalty checks he needs so desperately. Hey, a guy's gotta eat—especially when he's been dead since 1971. [ArsTechnica - top art: the AP]