While the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) dominated last week’s headlines, another damaging intellectual property decision actually passed with relatively little outcry.
Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld its Golan v. Holder ruling that art previously in the public domain could be re-copyrighted. Works already removed from the public domain include those by Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso and Sergei Prokofiev.
This ruling essentially discards the idea of a public domain, with copyrights able to be extended with seemingly no end point where a work belongs to everyone.
The U.S. Copyright Office estimates that millions of works would now be eligible for copyright restoration. Google, which opposed the law, said that renewed copyrights would affect more than a million books already scanned and available through the Google Books Library Project, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Libraries and archives that serve to provide educational resources, such as the USF Library, could also be greatly hindered by this ruling if they offer public domain works. Many libraries are already suffering budget cuts as is, and they might not be able to pay for the cost of newly copyrighted resources.
Orchestras are another example of who would be adversely affected by this ruling. Lead plaintiff Lawrenc Golan said conductors like himself could now have to pay $800 in royalties to perform Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” according to the Wall Street Journal, which would prevent many smaller orchestras from playing it.
This is the essential problem of copyright laws like the one upheld by Golan v. Holder. In their overreaching attempts to protect an artist’s creative vision, they greatly reduces the number of those who will be able to see or hear it.
Copyrights already have a long life of 70 years after the artist’s death before they enter the public domain. Allowing works to be removed from the pubic domain lets copyright owners continue putting a literal price on priceless works meant for all of humanity.
Last week’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day provided an unfortunate example of this. If anyone wanted to celebrate the holiday by watching his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, it would cost $10 to do so legally. According to The Atlantic, King’s estate and the British record company EMI control the copyright of the speech until 2038.
If any work should seemingly belong to the world, it would be King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — a plea for universal community. Yet a copyright exists for it after more than two decades, and now the copyright could easily be renewed past its current expiration date.
It would already be unbelievable enough for Buster Keaton if he knew his movies would be available one day on an online database, yet it’s likely he’d find it harder to believe that decades later, copyright owners and companies would be fighting for the rights to their creations. At some point, works of art are timeless enough that they should be accessible to everyone, and Golan v. Holder’s ruling rejects that idea.
Jimmy Geurts is a senior majoring in mass communications.