Eldred v. Ashcroft
537 U.S. 186 (2003)

  • Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 (CTEA), which extended the copyright of all works by 20 years.
    • This had the practical effect of stopping everything from entering the public domain for the next 20 years.
  • Eldred, who maintained a library of works in the public domain sued.
    • Eldred argued that CTEA was unconstitutional because the Intellectual Property Clause (Art. 1, §8, cl. 8) only empowers Congress to extend copyrights for "limited times."
    • In addition, Eldred argued that the CTEA was a violation of the 1st Amendment because it is a regulation of speech, and that it violated public trust by transferring public property into private hands with no rational basis.
  • The Trial Court found CTEA constitutional. Eldred appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the new copyright durations were still a 'limited' time, they were just a longer limited time.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Eldred appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the Copyright Act had been amended (and durations extended) a number of times in the past, so Congress had set a precedent that they could extend the duration.
  • In a dissent it was argued that it is highly unlikely any artist will be more inclined to produce work knowing their great-grandchildren will receive royalties, so CTEA did not achieve the goal of copyright law (encouraging creation of new works).
    • In addition, the dissent felt that the retroactive copyright extension was pointless because those works have already been produced.
      • "How will extension help todayŐs Noah Webster create new works 50 years after his death?"
  • After this decision, a number of private copyright agreements (like Creative Commons) started to appear by people concerned with the extent of the copyright system.