The U.S. Supreme Court recently began to hear oral arguments in a case that will determine whether millions of formerly public domain works can legally be granted copyright protection.
In 1994, Congress passed a law extending copyright protection to works created by international artists, musicians and writers that had formerly been considered part of the public domain, meaning that anyone could republish, perform, adapt or otherwise use them. Lawmakers said the new provisions brought the United States in line with the Berne Convention, which sought pledges from all contracting countries to respect each other's copyright laws.
A group of academics and artists mounted a challenge to the 1994 law, saying it unconstitutionally prevented them from using works that had previously been available for scholarship, performance and other purposes.
In the first day of oral argument, Justice Stephen Breyer seemed sympathetic to the academics' arguments. He brought up the example of Save the Music, which wants to put Jewish music from the Nazi era on the internet. If this music becomes copyrighted, Breyer said he worries it might put an impossible burden on the organization to track down composers and performers who might have ownership claims.
The Wall Street Journal reported the movie industry is in favor of the 1994 law, saying it protects their copyrights overseas, while Google opposes the law, saying its project to digitize millions of public domain works is at stake.