Law & Courts

Supreme Court Ponders Copyright Extension

By Mark Walsh — October 16, 2002 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

What do educational publishers, librarians, and the descendants of Dr. Seuss have at stake in a U.S. Supreme Court case about copyright?

Children's books that could be effected by the Supreme Court's decision.

Childhood favorites like these books might enter the public domain sooner if the court rejects the 1998 law.

A lot, judging by their willingness to file friend-of-the-court briefs in Eldred v. Ashcroft (Case No. 01-618). The high court last week heard arguments in the case, a challenge to the constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.

The statute, named for the late singer and member of Congress, extended the terms of most copyrights by 20 years, and was aggressively sought by Hollywood lobbyists, particularly for the Walt Disney Co. The copyright on the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, in the 1928 animated film “Steamboat Willie,” was due to expire next year but was extended for two decades by the Bono Act.

Under the law, copyright protection for individual authors, composers, and artists grew from 50 years to 70 years after the creator’s death. Copyrights held by corporations were extended from 75 to 95 years.

Critics of the extension argue that serial extensions of the protected time frame amount to perpetual copyright protection in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s copyright clause, which gives Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” The law’s challengers also say it runs afoul of the First Amendment free-expression rights of those who would seek to publish works that are part of the public domain.

Copyright and the Web

Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor who is representing a varied group of challengers, told the justices during the Oct. 9 oral arguments that the rise of the Internet had brought about “a fundamentally important changed circumstance” to the issue of copyright.

The lead plaintiff challenging the extension is Eric Eldred, who runs a Web-based publisher of literature that is in the public domain. The Eldritch Press, Mr. Eldred’s company, is used by students around the world to gain free access to works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and others.

“We are asserting that the opportunity to build upon works in the public domain is a vital First Amendment right,” Mr. Lessig told the Supreme Court justices last week. Several justices expressed sympathy for the challengers, but questioned whether they should overturn Congress on the issue.

Silver Screen

The law is being defended by the Bush administration and most of the commercial creative community, including several big educational publishers.

One brief in defense of the extension comes from the heirs of three prominent authors of books for children: Theodor S. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss; E.B. White, who wrote the classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little; and Ludwig Bemelmans, who wrote the Madeline series.

Their heirs told the court that children’s books, in particular, take a while to reach classic status, and argued that extended copyrights can encourage further creative activity by the holders. For example, it has often taken decades for movie versions of famous children’s books to reach the screen, they said, such as the 54 years between the publication of Stuart Little in 1945 and the recent film, or the 46 years from the 1957 publication of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and next year’s planned movie release.

The heirs of the children’s authors argue that “it is the exclusivity of copyright protection that provides the incentive for the producers of other derivative works to invest the capital to transform these books into new media.”

Such new works, of course, also help drive sales of the original books.

Related Tags:


Curriculum Webinar Computer Science Education Movement Gathers Momentum. How Should Schools React?
Discover how schools can expand opportunities for students to study computer science education.
School & District Management Webinar Fostering Student Well-Being with Programs That Work
Protecting student well-being has never been more important. Join this webinar to learn how to ensure your programs yield the best outcomes.
Reading & Literacy Webinar 'Science of Reading': What Are the Components?
Learn how to adopt a “science of reading” approach to early literacy to effectively build students’ vocabulary and content knowledge.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Maine OKs First Religious School for Tuition Reimbursement
A Supreme Court ruling had ordered the state to treat religious schools the same as other private schools regarding tuition reimbursement.
1 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2022.
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2022.
Patrick Semansky/AP
Law & Courts A School Librarian Pushes Back on Censorship and Gets Death Threats and Online Harassment
Amanda Jones lost her legal battle against online harassers this week but vows to continue to press her case.
7 min read
Amanda Jones, a librarian in Livingston Parish, La., pictured on Sept. 13, 2022. Jones is suing members of a Facebook group who harassed her virtually after she spoke against censorship in a public library meeting. Jones received angry emails and even a death threat from people across the country after she filed the lawsuit.
Amanda Jones, a librarian in Livingston Parish, La., is suing members of a Facebook group who harassed her virtually after she spoke against censorship in a public library meeting.
Claire Bangser for Education Week
Law & Courts Affirmative Action Cases Lead What Could Prove Another Momentous Supreme Court Term
The cases on race in college admissions could affect K-12. The justices will also weigh copyright, American Indian law, and LGBTQ rights.
7 min read
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2022.
The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2022.
Patrick Semansky/AP
Law & Courts As Rhetoric Heats Up, Many Parents Fear Politicians Are Using Children As ‘Political Pawns’
Not all parents buy the rationale policymakers have offered for limiting discussions of race and LGBTQ issues in school.
3 min read
Image of a book with a blue and red pen.
Laura Baker/Education Week and iStock/Getty