Court: Congress can’t put public domain back into copyright

6 04 2009

In 1994, Congress jammed a batch of foreign books and movies back into the copyright closet. They had previously fallen into the public domain for a variety of technical reasons (the author hadn’t renewed the rights with the US Copyright Office, the authors of older works hadn’t included a copyright notice, etc.) and companies and individuals had already started reusing the newly public works. Did Congress have the right to put a stop to this activity by shoving the works back into copyright? On Friday, a federal court said no.

“Traditional contours of copyright”

1994’s Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) brought US intellectual property law in line with that of other countries. Section 514 of URAA better aligned US copyright law with the international Berne Convention, one of the earliest international intellectual property treaties. Though Berne had first been signed back in 1886, the US hadn’t joined up until a century later, in 1988.

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