The URAA allows for copyright protection for foreign works that were previously in the public domain. The district court in Colorado first found for the government but on remand the Tenth Circuit asked the district court to determine whether the URAA is content – based or content – neutral and found that the URAA violated the First Amendment. There were cross-appeals before the Tenth Circuit. Plaintiffs are artists who used foreign works that at the time were in the public domain and but the copyright in the original works were restored under URAA. Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief claiming the statute was invalid, force the government not to enforce actions for restored copyrights and the Register of Copyrights to cancel restored registrations. The government as Defendant appealed summary judgment for Plaintiffs and sought reversal on Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The Tenth Circuit reversed finding the URAA does not violate the First Amendment.
What is the URAA?
As part of compliance with TRIPs (Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) in 1994, the U.S. was required to provide copyright protection to foreign works where their term for protection had not expired. This was originally part of the Berne Convention (a multinational treaty which the United States joined in 1989); however the U.S. failed to enact a law to extend protection for foreign works.
The URAA restored copyright protection for foreign works which had fallen into the public domain because:
- the work failed to comply with formalities (i.e. the failure to place a copyright notice on a work prior to 1989 (and the enactment of the Berne Convention) could subject the work to falling into the public domain)
- lack of subject matter protection
- lack of national eligibility
The parties stipulated that the URAA is content neutral and thus subject to intermediate and not strict scrutiny. Under intermediate scrutiny, the statute will not be unconstitutional if there is not substantial burden on speech to further the important government interests.
The appellate court sided with the government finding compliance with treaties, protecting U.S. copyright holders interest in foreign countries (as reciprocity may be granted with other treaty members) and restoring foreign authors rights in the United States to be important governmental interests.
Among the reasons cited by the court were its deference on foreign affairs issues to Congress and the President and economic arguments about the losses the U.S. authors would suffer because their works would fall into the public domain due to failure of the U.S. to agree to copyright relations with different countries (and recognize the rights of the foreign authors). Without the reciprocal protections offered under the URAA, American authors would not be provided with “restored” copyrights in other countries. Congress considered the effect on those who would be infringing “restored” copyrights.
The Court also found that the law was not overbroad and extending beyond the government interests. The court claims that the URAA does not interfere with the built in protections of the First Amendments in copyright law, such as fair use and the idea / expression dichotomy. (Although in this instance, there is an argument that the URAA does stifle free speech and its scope by removing works that were already in the public domain.)
The Tenth Circuit also rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments that the URAA is facially unconstitutional. Plaintiffs argued there should be a bright line about what is in the public domain. However, relying in part on Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003) (the Supreme Court decision upholding the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act – allowing for copyright protection to be extended to the life of the author plus 70 years), the court found that Congress had the power to extend copyright to works in the public domain.
The court failed to address an important distinction between Eldred and the URAA. In Eldred, Congress was not removing any works from the public but merely extended protection for works that were currently protected. In Golan, Congress was removing works that were already in the public domain. Retroactivity that may pull works out of the public domain could be more problematic than the issue in Eldred.
Will the Supreme Court extend Congressional power to take works out of the public domain? This is a classic copyright case with constitutional implications that the Supreme Court could not pass up.