Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue


Copyright Wars and the Public Domain – A Little History

Copyright - Will It Destroy Hollywood?

Back in 1998 and 1994, congress passed two controversial laws that many feel adversely affected copyright protection and the much relied upon ‘public domain’.

To this day many professionals still debate the pros and cons of these two laws.

A little history and current thinking is provided by Peter Decherney, an associate professor of film studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the forthcoming book “Hollywood’s Copyright Wars”, in this article from The New York Times:

Will Copyright Stifle Hollywood?

IN 1998, in a controversial piece of legislation, Congress extended the length of copyright protection in the United States by 20 years, freezing the entrance of works into the public domain. Four years earlier, however, Congress took a less well-known but even more drastic step: it shrank the public domain. With the 1994 Uruguay Round Agreements Act, Congress restored the copyrights of many foreign works that previously had been freely available.

Among the potentially millions of creations that lost their public-domain status were Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Picasso’s “Guernica,” the British films of Alfred Hitchcock, Astrid Lindgren’s earliest Pippi Longstocking books, stories by H. G. Wells, the drawings of M. C. Escher, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” Artists and others now have to rely on the permission of copyright holders to make use of such works.

In my own field — film — the effects of the 1994 law have been palpable. Distributors of classic foreign films have seen their catalogs diminished. Students can no longer get copies of many films. Archivists have postponed the preservation of important films. And of course filmmakers have lost access to works of literature that they might have adapted and music that might have enhanced soundtracks.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments today in Golan v. Holder, a case challenging the copyright provision of the 1994 act. There are many reasons the justices should conclude that Congress went too far in altering the copyright system.


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