Eldred v. Ashcroft
Annotate this Case
537 U.S. 186 (2003)
OCTOBER TERM, 2002
ELDRED ET AL. v. ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT
No. 01-618. Argued October 9, 2002-Decided January 15,2003
The Copyright and Patent Clause, U. S. Const., Art. I, § 8, cl. 8, provides as to copyrights: "Congress shall have Power ... [t]o promote the Progress of Science ... by securing [to Authors] for limited Times ... the exclusive Right to their ... Writings." In the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), Congress enlarged the duration of copyrights by 20 years: Under the 1976 Copyright Act (1976 Act), copyright protection generally lasted from a work's creation until 50 years after the author's death; under the CTEA, most copyrights now run from creation until 70 years after the author's death, 17 U. S. C. § 302(a). As in the case of prior copyright extensions, principally in 1831, 1909, and 1976, Congress provided for application of the enlarged terms to existing and future copyrights alike.
Petitioners, whose products or services build on copyrighted works that have gone into the public domain, brought this suit seeking a determination that the CTEA fails constitutional review under both the Copyright Clause's "limited Times" prescription and the First Amendment's free speech guarantee. Petitioners do not challenge the CTEA's "life-plus-70-years" timespan itself. They maintain that Congress went awry not with respect to newly created works, but in enlarging the term for published works with existing copyrights. The "limited Tim[e]" in effect when a copyright is secured, petitioners urge, becomes the constitutional boundary, a clear line beyond the power of Congress to extend. As to the First Amendment, petitioners contend that the CTEA is a content-neutral regulation of speech that fails inspection under the heightened judicial scrutiny appropriate for such regulations. The District Court entered judgment on the pleadings for the Attorney General (respondent here), holding that the CTEA does not violate the Copyright Clause's "limited Times" restriction because the CTEA's terms, though longer than the 1976 Act's terms, are still limited, not perpetual, and therefore fit within Congress' discretion. The court also held that there are no First Amendment rights to use the copyrighted works of others. The District of Columbia Circuit affirmed. In that court's unanimous view, Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U. S. 539, foreclosed petitioners' First Amendment challenge to the CTEA. The appeals court reasoned that copyright does not impermis-
sibly restrict free speech, for it grants the author an exclusive right only to the specific form of expression; it does not shield any idea or fact contained in the copyrighted work, and it allows for "fair use" even of the expression itself. A majority of the court also rejected petitioners' Copyright Clause claim. The court ruled that Circuit precedent precluded petitioners' plea for interpretation of the "limited Times" prescription with a view to the Clause's preambular statement of purpose:
"To promote the Progress of Science." The court found nothing in the constitutional text or history to suggest that a term of years for a copyright is not a "limited Tim[e]" if it may later be extended for another "limited Tim[e]." Recounting that the First Congress made the 1790 Copyright Act applicable to existing copyrights arising under state copyright laws, the court held that that construction by contemporaries of the Constitution's formation merited almost conclusive weight under Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U. S. 53, 57. As early as McClurg v. Kingsland, 1 How. 202, the Court of Appeals recognized, this Court made it plain that the Copyright Clause permits Congress to amplify an existing patent's terms. The court added that this Court has been similarly deferential to Congress' judgment regarding copyright. E. g., Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U. S. 417. Concerning petitioners' assertion that Congress could evade the limitation on its authority by stringing together an unlimited number of "limited Times," the court stated that such legislative misbehavior clearly was not before it. Rather, the court emphasized, the CTEA matched the baseline term for United States copyrights with the European Union term in order to meet contemporary circumstances.
Held: In placing existing and future copyrights in parity in the CTEA, Congress acted within its authority and did not transgress constitutionallimitations. Pp. 199-222.
1. The CTEA's extension of existing copyrights does not exceed Congress' power under the Copyright Clause. Pp. 199-218.
(a) Guided by text, history, and precedent, this Court cannot agree with petitioners that extending the duration of existing copyrights is categorically beyond Congress' Copyright Clause authority. Although conceding that the CTEA's baseline term of life plus 70 years qualifies as a "limited Tim[e]" as applied to future copyrights, petitioners contend that existing copyrights extended to endure for that same term are not "limited." In petitioners' view, a time prescription, once set, becomes forever "fixed" or "inalterable." The word "limited," however, does not convey a meaning so constricted. At the time of the Framing, "limited" meant what it means today: confined within certain bounds, restrained, or circumscribed. Thus understood, a timespan appropriately "limited"