U.S. Supreme Court Decides to Hear Appeal in Challenge to Constitutionality of Copyright Term Extension Act


Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case to decide whether or not the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act extending copyright protection of existing copyrights by an additional 20 years is constitutional. The appeal asked the Court to agree to hear—and to overturn—a decision by the federal appeals court for the D.C. Circuit.

On December 13, 2001, The Society of American Archivists, the American Library Association and the Association of Research Libraries, filed an amicus curiae brief requesting that the Supreme Court hear the case http://www.ala.org/washoff/eldred.html). The New York Times declared that the Court's decision to rule on the matter "held the potential of producing the most important copyright case in decades."

The brief to the Supreme Court argued, "the practical result of copyright term extension, by maintaining unnecessary barriers to the accessibility of information, diminishes the ability of the public to be educated, to be entertained, and to engage in debate. Through excessive copyright extension, copyright owners will continue to restrict access to and exert censorial control over millions of works, thereby chilling discourse and cultural development long after incentives for production have ceased to operate."

This case will present a great opportunity for archivists, librarians, historians and others to explain our view on the importance of the public domain and the harm that flows from keeping works almost perpetually locked up. As Roy Rosenzweig wrote in a recent article in the Journal of American History, "for historians, copyright protection has redlined...much of twentieth century history."

SAA has exerted leadership at the forefront of this issue and will continue to lead efforts to overturn the law. Mark Greene, a member of SAA Council, and, with Peter Hirtle and Bill Maher, of Council's working group on Intellectual Property, noted that the stakes for archivists in this case are very high:

"The growing reluctance of publishers to risk printing even excerpts from unpublished material without clear copyright permission has begun to significantly hamper scholars' ability to use archival sources. The last Civil War veterans died in the 1950s; under CTEA copyright, protection in unpublished letters from that war could endure until 2030. How such ever-lengthening copyright protection helps 'to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts,' as the Framers intended, is anyone's guess."

More about the case can be found at http://eon.law.harvard.edu/openlaw/eldredvashcroft/ and http://www.arl.org/info/frn/copy/extension.html.