Public domain works can be re-copyrighted by Congress

By Andrew Hudson Published: January 19, 2012 Updated: May 5, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 6-2 that Congress can re-copyright some public domain works to adhere to the Berne Convention.

In order to comply with the Berne Convention, Congress passed a law that will re-copyright some old foreign works that were protected overseas but in the public domain in the U.S. Musician Lawrence Golan had challenged the law which would re-copyright Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and other works, such that license fees may be charged for performances. But the Supreme Court ruled that works may be removed from the public domain when Congress has a valid need such as to comport with an international treaty.

“Neither the Copyrightand Patent Clause nor the First Amendment, we hold,makes the public domain, in any and all cases, a territorythat works may never exit.”
— U.S. Supreme Court, Golan et al. v. Holder, Attorney General, et al., January 18, 2012

“In aligning the United States with other nations bound by the Berne Convention, and thereby according equitable treatment to once disfavored foreign authors, Congress can hardly be charged with a design to move stealthily toward a regime of perpetual copyrights.”
— Justice Ruth Ginsburg for the majority,Golan et al. v. Holder, Attorney General, et al., January 18, 2012

Source: David Kravets at

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