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Supreme Court to Consider First Amendment Rights of Conductors in Recopyright Case

Posted Mar 8, 2011 12:14 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A Denver music conductor who wants his orchestras to perform foreign works that were once in the public domain is getting a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.

University of Denver music professor Lawrence Golan conducts several small orchestras, and he says it’s too expensive to perform foreign compositions that were taken out of the public domain and placed under copyright protection, the Denver Post reports. He has joined with other plaintiffs to challenge a 1994 recopyright law that removed thousands of foreign works from the public domain and gave them copyright protection. The law was enacted to help the United States comply with international treaties protecting the copyrights of American works.

Works taken out of the public domain include compositions by Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky; films by Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini; and books by C.S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells, according to a press release.

Besides Golan, the plaintiffs include educators, performers, film archivists and motion picture distributors, according to the cert petition (PDF). They are represented by lawyers from Stanford Law School’s Fair Use Project and from Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell.

The case raises two constitutional issues, Publishers Weekly reports. The first is whether the law violates the First Amendment rights of those who performed and distributed the affected works. The second is whether removing works from the public domain violates the copyright clause, which gives Congress the authority to grant copyrights for “limited times.”

The federal government had advised the Supreme Court to reject the cert petition, SCOTUSblog reports. The case is Golan v. Holder.

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