Supreme Court agrees to hear case on copyright extensions

WASHINGTON, D.C. — "Steamboat Willie" willhave its day in the Supreme Court.

The 1928 animated feature, which gave cartoon celebrity MickeyMouse his debut, is at the center of a copyright battle the Courtlast month pledged to resolve when it agreed to hear Eldredv. Ashcroft.

The outcome of that hearing will determine whether hundredsof thousands of books, songs and movies are in the public domainand thus freely available to be copied onto the Internet or ontodigital media.

The Court’s decision may provide more latitude to student journalistswho wish to use works that are — or would soon be — in the publicdomain.

The copyright dispute began after Congress in 1998 granteda 20-year extension to copyright laws, in a bid to protect individualauthors and corporations like Disney, who stand to lose royaltiesrevenue when their inventions become freely available to the public.

Some groups were outraged by the measure, the Sonny Bono CopyrightTerm Extension Act, saying it favors corporate bankrolls at theexpense of making intellectual property publicly available.

Eric Eldred, the named plaintiff in the case, opposes the SonnyBono Act because it threatens the expansion of his Web site,,on which he publishes public domain works.

Eldred and his lawyers specifically oppose Congress’ retroactiveextensions of copyrights. This provision of the act protected,among other properties, the Mickey Mouse character from "SteamboatWillie," which would lose its copyright in 2003 under theold law. A large volume of rare and out-of-print books run therisk of being lost forever if Congress keeps retroactively extendingcopyright terms, Eldred’s supporters said.

The Constitution allows Congress to copyright works by authorsand inventors for "limited times." In 1790, copyrightslasted a mere 14 years, but now a work is protected for 70 yearsafter an individual author’s death, or 95 years if it was inventedby a corporation.

The Bush administration urged the Supreme Court to reject Eldred’sappeal. Congress promotes progress by protecting intellectualproperty, it said. The 1998 Sonny Bono Act brought the UnitedStates in line with copyright laws in the European Union.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbiaruled that those opposed to the act "lack any cognizableFirst Amendment right to exploit the copyrighted works of others."

The Supreme Court has not reviewed a large copyright case since1985, when the law called for shorter copyright terms. Congresshas extended copyright terms 11 times since the 1960s.

The Court is expected to hear Eldred v. Ashcroft inthe fall of 2002.

Visit Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society to view court documents and read past stories about the case at our related coverage.