On January 15, 2003, the US Supreme Court upheld the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) in a landmark 7-2 ruling that came as a disappointment to the library community and other advocates of a vibrant public domain. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the majority opinion; Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice Stephen Breyer each wrote dissenting opinions.
Enacted in October 1998, the CTEA extended copyright protection of existing works by 20 years, from the life of the author plus 50 years (as mandated in the 1976 Copyright Act) to life of the author plus 70 years. The Act prospectively added 20 years of copyright protection to future works. For works made for hire, the term of protection was extended from 75 to 95 years, thus allowing major corporations such as Disney an additional 20 years of control over their works. In May 2002, ARL joined others in the library, archival, historical, and musical communities in an amici curiae, or friends of the court, brief. The brief argued that, by passing the CTEA, Congress exceeded the limits on copyright protection authorized by the US Constitution's Copyright Clause. According to amici, the CTEA upset the delicate balance between limited copyright protection for creators and the promotion of "progress [in] science and useful arts" through the growth of a vibrant public domain.
Writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg said that Congress had not exceeded its authority in extending the terms of protection for copyrights because the US Constitution allows Congress to grant protection to creators for "limited times" and, in fact, the CTEA is "limited" to a twenty-year extension. She wrote: "we are not at liberty to second-guess congressional determinations and policy judgments of this order, however debatable or arguably unwise they may be."
In his dissent, Justice Breyer wrote:
This statute will cause serious expression-related harm. It will likely restrict traditional dissemination of copyrighted works. It will likely inhibit new forms of dissemination through the use of new technology. It threatens to interfere with efforts to preserve our Nation's historical and cultural heritage and efforts to use that heritage, say, to educate our Nation's children. It is easy to understand how the statute might benefit the private financial interests of corporations or heirs who won existing copyrights. But I cannot find any constitutionally legitimate, copyright-related way in which the statute will benefit the public. Indeed, in respect to existing works, the serious public harm and the virtually nonexistent public benefit could not be more clear.
For Justice Ginsburg's majority opinion, see Eldred v Ashcroft: Opinion of the Court (PDF). For the two dissenting opinions, see Eldred v Ashcroft: Stevens, J. dissenting (PDF) and Eldred v Ashcroft: Breyer, J. dissenting (PDF).