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High Court Takes Up Copyright Case
Wed Oct 9, 3:13 AM ET
By GINA HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court is taking on some unusual subject matter: Mickey Mouse and other classics.
The court will consider whether it was unconstitutional for Congress to give writers and other creators a 20-year copyright extension. On the line are huge profits for companies, like The Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner Inc., that benefit from copyrights.
The 1998 extension protected some depictions of Disney's Mickey Mouse, along with hundreds of thousands of old books, movies and songs that were about to be released into the public domain.
Justices will hear arguments Wednesday from lawyers for a nonprofit Internet publisher who contends that the court should protect the public's right to material. The Bush administration is arguing that Congress did nothing wrong.
The court's eventual ruling will determine if the books, art and music will become freely available over the Internet or in digital libraries soon — and if people could use them without paying licensing fees.
The Constitution allows Congress to give authors and inventors the exclusive right to their works for a "limited" time. The Supreme Court will look at how Congress handled that matter, and if the latest extension can apply retroactively.
Congress has repeatedly lengthened the terms of copyrights over the years. With the challenged 1998 extension, the period is 70 years after the death of the creator. Works owned by corporations are now protected for 95 years.
The 20-year extension, included in the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, brought U.S. rules in line with those of the European Union (news - web sites). It was supported by Disney and other companies with lucrative copyrights.
Hundreds of groups have filed arguments with the court in this case, some supporting the Bush administration and others on behalf of publisher Eric Eldred.
AOL Time Warner said if the extension was struck down, it would threaten copyrights for some of its movies, including "Casablanca," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind."
Songs that would come into the public domain are "Stardust," "Yes! We Have No Bananas," and "Yes Sir! That's My Baby," the Songwriters Guild of America told the court.
The court's ruling will not affect trademarks, like the one Disney has for Mickey Mouse.
Erik S. Jaffe, a Washington attorney who filed a friend-of-the-court brief, said Congress could keep extending the copyright protection forever, even though creators have been adequately paid for their inventions.
"It's like the last mortgage note is to be paid, and the bank says, `No, you've got another 20 years,'" Jaffe said.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the court in a filing that Congress has been conservative with its extensions. He said "there is no basis for courts to second-guess Congress' determinations."
The case is Eldred v. Ashcroft, 01-618.