Disney wins copyright case


Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 11:49 p.m.
WASHINGTON - Mickey Mouse and The Walt Disney Co. scored a big victory Wednesday as the Supreme Court upheld longer copyright protections for cartoon characters, songs, books and other creations worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Companies like Disney breathed a collective sigh of relief with the 7-2 court ruling giving Congress permission to repeatedly extend copyright protection.
The decision was a blow to Internet publishers and others who wanted to make old books available online and use the likenesses of Mickey Mouse and other old creations without paying royalties.
Hundreds of thousands of books, movies and songs were close to being released into the public domain when Congress extended the copyright by 20 years in 1998.
Justices said the copyright extension, named for the late Rep. Sonny Bono, R-Calif., was neither unconstitutional overreaching by Congress, nor a violation of free-speech rights.
"We are not at liberty to second-guess congressional determinations and policy judgments of this order, however debatable or arguably unwise they may be," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.
In two lengthy dissents, Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer said the court was making a huge mistake.
"The serious public harm and the virtually nonexistent public benefit could not be more clear," Breyer wrote.
Breyer said the limit "threatens to interfere with efforts to preserve our nation's historical and cultural heritage" and to educate children. Stevens said the court was "failing to protect the public interest in free access to the products of inventive and artistic genius."
A contrary ruling would have caused huge losses for entertainment giants like Disney and AOL Time Warner Inc.
AOL Time Warner had said that would threaten copyrights for such movies as "Casablanca," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind."
Also at risk of expiration was protection for the version of Mickey Mouse portrayed in Disney's earliest films, such as 1928's "Steamboat Willie."
The ruling will affect movie studios and heirs of authors and composers. It will also affect small music publishers, orchestras and church choirs that must pay royalties to perform some pieces.
"The winners are folks who hold valuable copyrights. The losers are everyone else," said Erik S. Jaffe, a Washington attorney who filed arguments in the court challenge. "Everyone is going to pay more for things they would have had for cheap or free."
But Jack Valenti, president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, said that copyrights encourage the creation and preservation of works. "That is why this ruling is a victory not solely for rights holders, but also for consumers everywhere," he said.
The Constitution allows Congress to give authors and inventors the exclusive right to their works for a "limited" time.
Congress has repeatedly lengthened the terms of copyrights over the years. Copyrights lasted only 14 years in 1790. With the challenged 1998 extension, the period is now 70 years after the death of the creator. Works owned by corporations are now protected for 95 years.
Congress passed the latest copyright extension after heavy lobbying from companies with lucrative copyrights.
Eric Eldred challenged the extension, which he said unfairly limits what he can make available on a public Internet library he runs.
The extension "protects authors' original expression from unrestricted exploitation," Ginsburg wrote in rejecting Eldred's free-speech claims. "Protection of that order does not raise the free speech concerns present when government compels or burdens the communication of particular facts or ideas."
Eldred said from his home in Derry, N.H., said the decision "seems like it's giving an open license to Congress to keep those works locked up perpetually."
The case is Eldred v. Ashcroft, 01-618.

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