The Golan Decision – In Plain English

We are starting a new periodic series on the blog to help you understand important copyright law cases In Plain English. This first installment is authored by the Copyright Alliance's legal intern William Ruiz.  William is originally from Southern California and is a third-year law student at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana.

On January, 18, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld on a vote of 6-2 a 1994 law that gave copyright protection to millions of foreign-produced books, movies and musical pieces.  Passed in order to meet obligations from international trade talks, the law was sought to secure reciprocal protection for American works overseas. The decision was considered a victory for the film and music industries and a defeat for Google, who has undertaken an effort to create a vast online library of public domain works. Justice Ginsburg wrote for the majority.  Justices Breyer and Alito dissented.  Justice Kagan did not take part in the case.  Here’s some background on the decision In Plain English.

In Golan v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that restored copyright protection for certain foreign works that were once in the public domain.  Public domain works are those works that may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.  Typically, works “fall into” the public domain once the term of the protected copyright has expired; for example, the original version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein no longer has copyright protection.

The foreign works at issue in Golan v Holder ended up in the public domain because they were published prior to U.S. joining the Berne Convention.  The Berne Convention requires signatories to provide the same copyright protections to citizens in other member countries that a country provides to its own citizens. The U.S. government has been a signatory of the Convention since 1988.

To perfect the U.S. implementation of Berne, Congress enacted the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), which granted copyright protections to preexisting works of Berne member countries, protected in their country of origin, but lacking protection in the United States. The underlying goals of the URAA are to afford U.S. copyright holders the same protections overseas that they are granted domestically.  Because U.S. creators and artists sell more works into overseas markets than foreign creators sell here, the reciprocity relationship greatly benefits U.S. creators.

In the context of the Golan case, the URAA simply placed the foreign works in question in the position they would have occupied if the current U.S. copyright regime had been in effect when those works were created and first published.