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Law School Case Brief

Golan v. Holder - 565 U.S. 302, 132 S. Ct. 873 (2012)


Due to the idea/expression distinction, every idea, theory, and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication; the author's expression alone gains copyright protection.


Petitioners Lawrence Golan and other individuals and businesses performed, distributed, and sold foreign works that were in the public domain in the United States. Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, 17 U.S.C.S. §§ 104A, 109 ("URAA") later provided copyright protection to those roreign works, removing them from the public domain in the United States. As a result, plaintiffs were either prevented from using those works or were required to pay licensing fees to the copyright holders—fees that were often cost-prohibitive for plaintiffs. As a result, plaintiffs filed an action in federal district court against defendants Eric H. Holder, Jr., the Attorney General of the United States and others, contending, inter alia, that § 514, in granting the copyrights to works that were previously reproduced without limit, violated their First Amendment right to free speech. Ultimately, on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court granted plaintiffs' motion, concluding that to the extent § 514 suppressed the right of reliance parties, such as plaintiffs, to use works they exploited while the works were in the public domain, § 514 was unconstitutional. On the Government's appeal, the appellate court reversed, holding that § 514 did not violate plaintiffs' freedom of speech because it advanced an important governmental interest, and it was not substantially broader than necessary to advance that interest. Plaintiffs were granted a writ of certiorari.


Did the appellate court err when ruled that § 514 of the URAA did not violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution? 




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the appellate court's judgment. The Court held that § 514 was valid. The congressional authority to regulate copyright protection did not exclude application of such protection to works in the public domain or require that works remain in the public domain, and the requirement that the term of a copyright be limited remained applicable after the copyrights were granted. Further, the historical practice of Congress included the protection of previously unprotected works, and the copyrights served the objectives of constitutional copyright authority. Also, the idea/expression distinction and the fair use doctrine served as accommodations to plaintiffs' freedom of speech, and plaintiffs had no vested rights in works in the public domain that were not subject to ownership rights.

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