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Supreme Court to public domain: Let's fence you in

The Supremes say Congress can force public-domain works back into copyright, in consideration to the Berne Convention treaty.

Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and H.G. Wells' "Things to Come" may have first been published decades ago, and have long been in the public domain, but that doesn't mean they won't soon be under copyright once again.

The United States Supreme Court ruled 6-2 today in favor of Congressional legislation that could re-copyright works long in the public domain in the United States. Screenshot by CNET

That could be the result of a Supreme Court ruling today that Congress can re-copyright public domain works, Wired wrote.

With its 6-2 decision in Golan v. Holder (PDF), the top U.S. court held that Congress has the duty to comply with an international treaty known as the Berne Convention, which permits re-copyrighting works--books, musical compositions, and similar items--that have been in the public domain in the United States, but which are still copyrighted elsewhere.

According to Wired:

The top court was ruling on a petition by a group of orchestra conductors, educators, performers, publishers and film archivists who urged the justices to reverse an appellate court that ruled against the group, which has relied on artistic works in the public domain for their livelihoods.

They claimed that re-copyrighting public works would breach the speech rights of those who are now using those works without needing a license. There are millions of decades-old works at issue. Some of the well known ones include H.G. Wells' "Things to Come;" Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and the musical compositions of Igor Fydorovich Stravinsky.

The court, however, was sympathetic to the plaintiffs' argument. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Ginsburg said "some restriction on expression is the inherent and intended effect of every grant of copyright." But the top court, with Justice Elena Kagan recused, said Congress' move to re-copyright the works to comport with an international treaty was more important.

Justice Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito dissented from the majority, arguing that the Congressional legislation at issue in the case violates copyright theory and discourages the creation of new works. As Wired reported:

The legislation, Breyer wrote, "bestows monetary rewards only on owners of old works in the American public domain. At the same time, the statute inhibits the dissemination of those works, foreign works published abroad after 1923, of which there are many millions, including films, works of art, innumerable photographs, and, of course, books--books that (in the absence of the statute) would assume their rightful places in computer-accessible databases, spreading knowledge throughout the world."