Sponsored by: This story appeared on Network World Fusion at http://www.nwfusion.com/columnists/2002/0311bradner.html 'Net Insider: Larry and the Supremes By Scott Bradner Network World, 03/11/02 I am not a person who thinks copyrights are evil, but I also don't think they should last forever. The "copyright industries" - as Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, quaintly describes the multibillion-dollar conglomerates that control most intellectual property - agree. But they would be quite happy with forever minus one day. Maybe, just maybe, the U.S. Supreme Court is about to say that this would be a bit excessive. On Feb. 19, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the appeal of Eric Eldred, who runs a small organization dedicated to putting public domain literature online, against the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Very few observers expected the Supreme Court to accept the appeal because there were no conflicting opinions in the lower courts - a common reason to accept appeals - and because the Supreme Court generally does not go out of its way to plow new ground. At least four of the justices had to have felt that there was an issue of substance to be decided, so there is a hope that they will overturn at least part of the Bono Act. More information about the case can be found here. The concept of copyright protection is in the U.S. Constitution: The creator of a work should be given exclusive control over most uses of his creation "for a limited period" so that the person can directly benefit from its creation and will be encouraged to produce other things. The "limited period" in the original copyright law was 14 years, with the ability to get another 14 years if the author is still alive. The period has been extended 11 times in the last century and, before the Bono Act, was life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for "corporate authors" such as this publication. The Bono Act extended both of these by 20 years and applied to existing works. The specific appeal that the Supreme Court accepted is on applying the extension to existing works. It's hard to see what additional inducement to create would come out of an additional 20 years of copyright protection when you already had 50 or more years. Why is this important to us Internet geeks? The Internet has become the reference tool. Any time that more material can be added to such a tool we all benefit. If endless extensions to the "limited period" mean that nothing more goes into the public domain, then almost all published material will be lost effectively forever. As a data point, only 1.7% of the books published in 1930 are still in print. I hope the court goes further than just ruling the extension for existing materials is unconstitutional, as Larry Lessig, the lead lawyer for the plaintiff is asking. I hope it also will define the term "limited" to be something closer to what the framers of the Constitution would have thought to be reasonable. Disclaimer: I'm joining lots of Harvard people who have expressed opinions on this case but, as far as I know, the university itself has not. Related Links All contents copyright 1995-2002 Network World, Inc. http://www.nwfusion.com