WASHINGTON--In a decision that might have implications for the future of
MST3K reruns or video releases, the Supreme Court on Jan. 15 upheld lengthier
copyrights, protecting the owners of movie copyrights, and seriously damaging
the concept of "public domain."
The 7-2 ruling in the case of Eldred v. Ashcroft, while not unexpected,
dashed the hopes of Internet publishers and others who wanted to make old
books available online and use other old creations without paying high
It also put an undetermined number of MST3K episodes effectively out of reach
of a TV network that might choose to air them, or video distributors that
might want to release those episodes commercially on video or DVD.
The rights to the films featured in most MST3K episodes were purchased for
only a few years and, in the majority of cases, those rights have expired,
and will have to renewed before the episodes can be shown on TV or released
on video and DVD. In quite many cases the rights owners have set prices
prohibitively high; in a few cases they are apparently doing so to suppress
the episodes in which their property was ridiculed.
If the Court had overturned the copyright extension, an undetermined number
of films featured in MST3K episodes might have gained "public domain" status,
markedly lowering the price TV networks or video distributors would have had
to pay to make those episodes available.
In their opinions, the justices indicated that they thought the copyright
extension, named for the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.), was questionable
policy, but they concluded that it was neither unconstitutional overreaching
by Congress, nor a violation of constitutional free-speech rights, as public
domain advocates had claimed in the suit.
"We find that the (extension) is a rational enactment; we are not at liberty
to second-guess congressional determinations and policy judgments of this
order, however debatable or arguably unwise they may be," the court said.
Congress has repeatedly lengthened the terms of copyrights over the years.
Copyrights lasted only 14 years in 1790. With the challenged 1998 extension,
the period is now 70 years after the death of the creator. Works owned by
corporations are now protected for 95 years.
All works made in 1964 or later are protected under the legislation, whether
their owners formally requested a renewal of their rights or not. All works
made between 1923 and 1963 are similarly protected if their owners properly
filed for copyright renewal. Works made before 1923 are not protected by the
extension, but MST3K does not feature any movies that old.
In addition, some works that were previously considered public domain titles
have had their public domain status effectively removed because the creators
of music or other elements within the film have exercised their copyrights.
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