US top court upholds copyright law for famous foreign works

Wed Jan 18, 2012 3:52pm GMT

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* Google was among those backing the Supreme Court challenge

* U.S. government attorneys defended law as constitutional

* Law applied to films, paintings, books never copyrighted

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON, Jan 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a law that gave copyright protection to millions of foreign works, including famous films, paintings and books, that had been in the public domain.

By a 6-2 vote, the high court rejected arguments by an orchestra conductor, other performers and educators that the 1994 act violated U.S. copyright law and constitutional free-speech rights.

At issue in the ruling was the law, adopted by Congress to comply with an international treaty, that gave copyright protection to foreign works, including films by Alfred Hitchcock, paintings by Picasso, symphonies by Stravinsky and books by C.S. Lewis and Virginia Woolf.

Under the law, the foreign works cannot by copied, played, shared or republished without paying royalties or seeking permission. The law applied only to works that were never copyrighted under the old U.S. copyright law.

Opponents challenged the law for exceeding Congress's power to grant copyrights and for infringing on free-speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Google Inc (GOOG.O), which has digitized millions of public domain works and placed them online, was among those backing the Supreme Court challenge.

Composers, authors, songwriters, photographers and others who depend on copyright protection supported the law, and U.S. government attorneys defended it as constitutional.

They said Congress has long taken the position that foreign works should receive the same treatment as domestic works under the reciprocal international copyright system and that the law was part of an effort to crack down in intellectual piracy.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the government's legal arguments and said the law did not exceed the authority of Congress under the Constitution's Copyright Clause.

She also ruled the law does not violate constitutional free-speech protections.

The law "simply brings certain foreign works under the same legal regime that applies to domestic and most other foreign works. That alignment does not unconstitutionally abridge speech," she said in summarizing the opinion from the bench.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissented. Breyer wrote in his dissent that the law withdraws material from the public domain, inhibiting an important pre-existing flow of information.

The Supreme Court in 2003 ruled that Congress may extend the life of an existing domestic copyright by 20 years. But it had never previously ruled on whether published works without a copyright could later receive copyright protection.

The Supreme Court agreed to decide the dispute after a federal appeals court in Denver upheld the law and concluded American authors and artists would be better off abroad if their foreign counterparts received U.S. copyright protection.

The Supreme Court case is Golan v. Attorney General Eric Holder, No. 10-545.

(Editing by Eric Beech)

((jim.vicini@thomsonreuters.com)(202-898-8397)(Reuters Messaging: jim.vicini.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)) Keywords: USA COPYRIGHT/COURT

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