The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on October 5 in Golan v. Holder from petitioners seeking to overturn a 1994 copyright law that reinstated copyrights for foreign copyright owners. The petitioners, a group of businesses and artists who use works in the public domain as part of their business or trade, seek to overturn this law in order to continue to use these works without paying royalties.
The law in question, the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (“URAA”) restored copyrights to foreign authors who lost the rights to copyright for any reason other than the expiration of the term of the copyright. In the underlying case, the Tenth Circuit heard Plaintiffs’ challenges to the URAA and First Amendment claims in the public works. The Court cited Eldred v. Ashcroft, which held that Congress has broad power to bestow copyrights, but is limited by the First Amendment. The government cited three interests in upholding the URAA, including compliance with international treaties, protecting U.S. copyright interests abroad, and correcting historic inequities against foreign authors. In the current case, the Supreme Court will determine whether the URAA violates the First Amendment, and whether the Progress Clause of the U.S. Constitution prevents Congress from removing works out of the public domain.
The outcome of this matter may implicate a broad swath of public works by foreign authors, and may determine whether the public may freely use the works without paying royalties. It is important to be careful about determining whether third-party works fall within the public domain before copying or using those works, in order to avoid potential copyright-infringement claims. If in doubt, it is advisable to consult an experienced attorney.