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The Florida Bar

Hollywood Watches Legal Argument over Copyrights

The Copyright-related legal argument that will be before the Supreme Court in the case of Golan versus Holder will be closely watched by the Hollywood studios and recording industry lobbyists. The matter of the case pertains to free speech on the surface, but it may have deeper and far-reaching ramifications in terms of the international protection of copyrighted music, movies, and television shows. The concern is clear that whatever comes into public domain is going to remain in public domain forever.

A group of home video distributors, educators, and orchestra conductions are among those who have challenged the constitutional validity of a 1994 Act of Congress that reinstated the copyrights of millions of overseas works that had become a part of the public domain. The law, which was included in the 1994 Uruguay Round Agreements Act, had a simple rationale: if the United States reinstated copyrights of works from foreign countries, those countries would reciprocate the same for titles that had come into the public domain.

Those who support the act contend that U.S. had to honor the treaty obligations and comply with the Berne Convention, which is an international agreement wherein countries recognize the copyrights of works from other countries that are part of the treaty. However, the plaintiffs in the present case, such as Lawrence Golan, point out that the law led to the removal of certain works from the public domain, which were critical to their profession.

The plaintiffs in the case have argued that the case is not merely of esoteric value, and concerns the borderline between copyrights and free speech. Their brief to the Supreme Court says that they have lost significant rights of speech and expression that were central to their profession, as well as the anticipated return on substantial investments. They further argue that the law is in violation of the copyright clause of limited-time restriction.

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