Chronicle of Higher Education
May 29, 2011
Supreme Court Takes Up Scholars' Rights
By Marc Parry
When Lawrence Golan picks up his baton here at the University of Denver, the musicians in his student orchestra see a genial conductor who corrects their mistakes without raising his voice in frustration.
Yet Mr. Golan is frustrated, not with the musicians, but with a copyright law that does them harm. For 10 years, the music professor has been quietly waging a legal campaign to overturn the statute, which makes it impossibly expensive for smaller orchestras to play certain pieces of music.
Now the case is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high-stakes copyright showdown affects far more than sheet music. The outcome will touch a broad swath of academe for years to come, dictating what materials scholars can use in books and courses without jumping through legal hoops. The law Mr. Golan is trying to overturn has also hobbled libraries' efforts to digitize and share books, films, and music.
The conductor's fight centers on the concept of the public domain, which scholars depend on for teaching and research. When a work enters the public domain, anyone can quote from it, copy it, share it, or republish it without seeking permission or paying royalties.
The dispute that led to Golan v. Holder dates to 1994, when Congress passed a law that moved vast amounts of material from the public domain back behind the firewall of copyright protection. For conductors like Mr. Golan, that step limited access to canonical 20th-century Russian pieces that had been freely played for years.
"It was a shocking change," Mr. Golan says over dinner at a tacos-and-margaritas dive near the University of Denver's mountain-framed campus. "You used to be able to buy Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky. All of a sudden, on one day, you couldn't anymore."
Other works once available but now restricted include books by H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and C.S. Lewis; films by Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, and Jean Renoir; and artwork by M.C. Escher and Pablo Picasso. The U.S. Copyright Office estimated that the works qualifying for copyright restoration "probably number in the millions."
Congress approved the recopyrighting, limited to foreign works, to align U.S. policy with an international copyright treaty. But the Golan plaintiffs—a group that includes educators, performers, and film archivists—argue that bigger principles are at stake. Does Congress have the constitutional right to remove works from the public domain? And if it does, what's stopping it from plucking out even more freely available works?
"If you can't rely on the status of something in the public domain today—that is, if you never know whether Congress is going to act again and yank it out—you're going to be a lot more cautious about doing anything with these materials," says Mr. Golan's lawyer, Anthony Falzone, executive director of the Fair Use Project and a lecturer in law at Stanford Law School. "You really destroy the value and the usefulness of the public domain in a profound way if the rug can be pulled out from under you at any time."
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