This past October 5, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Golan v. Holder. This copyright case seeks to test the ability of Congress to grant copyright protection to foreign works that previously were deemed to be free to the U.S. public -- that is, in the U.S. "public domain."
Petitioner Larry Golan is a symphony conductor and a professor of the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. Other petitioners are people who claim to rely on the free appropriation of work in the U.S. public domain for their livelihood. The petitioners argue that Congress did not have the power to enact the Uruguay Round Agreements Act of 1994. This legislation added new section 104A to the U.S. Copyright Act, thereby enabling the owner of an eligible foreign work that was in the public domain in the U.S., but still protected under copyright in the foreign source country, to obtain a "restored" U.S. copyright protection in the foreign work. This right to restore a U.S. copyright to a previously "free" foreign work commenced as early as January 1, 1996 if the foreign source country adhered to one of several copyright treaties (the Berne Convention, WIPO Copyright Treaty) or was a WTO member, or if the country was designated in a Presidential proclamation.
Larry Golan complains that prior to January 1, 1996 he was able to perform Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Shostakovitch's Symphony 14, plus many other valuable works, freely -- without paying any royalties. This was so because many great works were created in foreign source countries at a time when the foreign source countries did not adhere to a copyright treaty. As such, these works were not eligible for protection under U.S. copyright law at the time the works were created or at the time the works were introduced into the U.S. Indeed, the current Copyright Act continues to require national eligibility. Current section 104 of the U.S. Copyright Act excludes published works from U.S. copyright protection unless on the date of publication one of the authors was a national or domiciliary of the U.S. or of a treaty country, or a stateless person, or the work was first published in the U.S. or a treaty country, plus other coverage options. So, authors first publishing their work in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq or other sourcing states who are not treaty, WIPO or WTO members continue to have their works excluded from copyright protection in the U.S. These works remain free to use today. A complete listing of countries, together with their copyright treaty status, is provided by the U.S. Copyright Office.
There are two primary types of foreign works that are subject to copyright restoration under Section 104A. The first type of work is one that was lost to the public domain because of a mess up. That is, the work is a foreign work that has copyright protection in its source country that is a copyright treaty country, but the owner of the work failed to comply with U.S. formalities. The most common formalities include the obligation to make a timely renewal filing and to include a copyright notice on the published work. The second type of work restored under Section 104A involves a foreign work that was not previously permitted to be copyright protected in the U.S. because of lack of national eligibility. If by January 1, 1996 the foreign source country was a treaty, WIPO or WTO member then this second type of foreign work could receive the benefit of U.S. protection for the first time ever.
Getting back to Larry Golan for a minute, Larry argues that he should be free to use all foreign works in the public domain without paying a royalty notwithstanding how the work came to be in the U.S. public domain in the first place. He argues that once a work is in the public domain, it remains in the public domain forever. To borrow from a religious argument, once a soul arrives in hell it remains in hell forever. This is a stark analogy to be sure, but the impact of Golan's argument on Prokofiev's copyright successors is also stark. Golan does not recognize the possibility of something less stark; such as a temporary or transitional state of purgatory where a soul resides for a period of time subject to removal.
[If the religious analogy is too harsh, then consider a comparable analogy pertaining to a person's presence in jail. A person can be present in jail in one of two ways: by placing himself or herself in jail upon commission of a crime or by being born in jail. Society has completely different interests in a person's presence in jail depending how the person came to be in jail in the first place. It seems to me that we should consider why a person is present in jail before we throw away the key.]
For Golan, the state of copyrightlessness is all or nothing. Either there is a copyright or there is not, he argues, and if there is no copyright then there cannot ever be a copyright. Hence, according to Golan, he should be permitted to conduct Peter and the Wolf, and other nonprotected works, freely without royalty or other restriction.
I do not share Golan's all or nothing views. Indeed, I have two separate views of the restoration of U.S. copyright in foreign works. I have one view as to restored foreign work that was eligible for protection in the U.S. but lost protection due to the owner's mess up -- failure to comply with formalities. I have another, opposite view as to restored foreign works that never previously had the right to U.S. protection.
If a foreign work from a treaty, WTO or WIPO member source country was eligible for copyright protection in the U.S., but if the work lost this protection for failure of the copyright owner to comply with the U.S. recording and notice laws, then I have little sympathy for the resulting public domain status. For the same reason that every person, notwithstanding his or her country of origin or immigration status, who drives a motor vehicle on a U.S. highway is required to comply with U.S. driving laws, every copyright owner was required to comply with U.S. copyright law formalities prior to January 1, 1996. What is good for a U.S. citizen should be good enough for a non-citizen. Everyone should be treated equally. If a foreign citizen does not know the U.S. rules of the road prior to driving in the U.S., then they should read up on the law. If the owner of a foreign work does not know about U.S. copyright formalities, then retain legal counsel or borrow a library book and learn about U.S. copyright law. But it is not appropriate in my view for the owner of a foreign work to bring the work into the U.S. in order to take advantage of the U.S. market and U.S. law, but then complain that the law is too harsh when it comes to failure to comply. To the extent that a foreign work was eligible for copyright protection in the U.S., but lost the protection due to the copyright owner's own conduct, then this type of work should not be given a free pass out of the public domain jail.
A foreign work that was never eligible for U.S. copyright protection, however, is in a completely different circumstance than a work that was eligible but lost protection due to failure to comply with U.S. law. Prokofiev never had an opportunity to obtain U.S. copyright law protection for Peter and the Wolf until January 1, 1996, with the addition of Section 104A to the Copyright Act. Prokofiev never lost pre-existing protection as a result of a mess up on his part. He never had protection -- ever -- because Congress never extended protection to him or to his work created in the early Twentieth Century in the Soviet Union.
I submit that the U.S. public domain should not be viewed as an end in and of itself, but rather as a condition that exists based on how a work is protected, or not protected. If a work is never protected under U.S. copyright, then the lack of any protection is not a condition of being in the "public domain" as much as a condition of non-protection. [The concept of public domain and the concept of non-protection are admittedly nuanced and, in any event, live close to a common border, but they indeed can live separate lives.] In this event, the "public domain" is not a protectable property interest owned by other users but is merely a present condition caused by a lack of protection. Congress has authority in my view to add protection where none ever existed. In this case, the lack of protection is more akin to being born in jail. This is particularly so in that the owner of the work has done nothing to cause the loss of protection. On the other hand, if there previously was protection to a foreign work, but if protection was lost due to a failure on the part of the copyright owner, then this voluntary failure to adhere to required formalities creates a permanent jail -- abandonment to the public domain.
Furthermore, the expectations of users differ depending on how a work came to be placed in the public domain. If a free user knew that the work was protected at a point in time but then lost protection due to faulty conduct by the work's owner, then the free user can be said to have a firmer expectation of continued free use. This differs from the expectation of a free user who knows that a work was never protected through no fault of the work's author. This type of free user expectation is more transitional. Enjoy it while you can, but it may not last.
Public domain need not be considered as an all or nothing proposition. If a copyright owner voluntarily placed a work into the public domain by failing to comply with formalities, or if the copyright terminated for other technical reasons, then the copyright should not be revived. But if an owner of a work never had protection to begin with, then the right to protection should begin at some point. January 1, 1996 is as good a start date as any.
It will definitely be interesting to see how the Supreme Court rationalizes the common restorative treatment that Section 104A provides to two completely different "public domain" conditions. My prediction is that Section 104A will be found to be constitutional as to restorations based on the lack of national eligibility, but unconstitutional as to restorations based on failure to comply with formalities.