Sing It!
Judge Rules Warner-Chappell Does Not Own Copyright in “Happy Birthday” Lyrics

Yesterday a federal judge ruled that Warner-Chappell does not own copyright in the lyrics to the song “Happy Birthday.” The lawsuit addressed only the lyrics, as the parties agreed that the music passed into the public domain long ago. The opinion is a beast, weighing in at a very dense 43 pages, and leaves the reader hanging until the very last minute.

The court addresses several issues, concluding (1) there is a genuine issue of material fact as to the authorship of the “Happy Birthday” lyrics; (2) there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a divestive publication of the “Happy Birthday” lyrics occurred (specifically, whether the lyrics were the subject of an authorized “general publication” under the Copyright Act of 1909 that divested the lyrics of common-law copyright protection); (3) there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the purported author abandoned her copyright in the lyrics; and, finally, (4) there is insufficient evidence to establish that the purported author ever transferred her rights in the lyrics to Warner-Chappell’s predecessor-in-interest.

It is important to note that, contrary to various assertions by commentators online, that the opinion does not hold that the lyrics are in the public domain. This is perhaps a wonky copyright distinction, but one that is substantively very important. The ruling holds only that Warner-Chappell does not own copyright in the lyrics. It is at least theoretically possible that some other party could come forward and establish ownership. This seems fairly unlikely, given that the song was authored in 1893 and solid evidence regarding chain of title has faded into the mists of time.

The resulting uncertainty highlights the problem of “orphan works” – works as to which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to establish ownership. The orphan works problem plagues many would-be users of works, who cannot identify or locate the owners of works they may wish to license. There have been many calls for a legislative fix of the “orphan works” problem, and we can only hope that Congress takes it up as part of the broader need for copyright reform.

In the meantime, happy birthday to everyone!

Eldred Conquers Golan’s Heights
Supreme Court Upholds Copyright Restoration

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its eagerly awaited ruling in Golan v. Holder, holding that Congress acted within its authority in passing legislation that restored copyright in certain foreign works that were previously in the public domain in the United States.  The Court found that its earlier opinion in Eldred v. Ashcroft largely disposed of the petitioners’ claims.  Though reactions to the case seemed muted in contrast to the raging debate over SOPA – which initially overshadowed news of the opinion – it is an important opinion with significant ramifications for those who use content in the public domain. Continue reading »

Golan’s Heights
Supremes to Hear Constitutional Challenge to Copyright Restoration

On March 7, the Supreme Court granted cert. in Golan v. Holder, taking up the question whether Congress violated the First Amendment when it granted copyright protection to certain foreign works that were previously in the public domain in the United States. The case stems from Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (“URAA”), enacted in 1994 and codified as Sections 104A and 109 of the Copyright Act. Congress passed these provisions to bring the United States into compliance with preexisting international treaty obligations under the Berne Convention, which the United States joined in 1989.

Among other things, the Berne Convention requires its adherents to provide foreign authors with the same degree of copyright protection that they accord to their own nationals. Article 18 of the Berne Conventionrequires joining members to provide copyright protection to foreign works even if those works were previously in the public domain in the joining country. The United States, however, never passed legislation implementing this aspect of Berne.

In 1994, in connection with the Uruguay Round General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the United States signed the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). TRIPs required its signatories to comply with Article 18 of the Berne Convention. Accordingly, the United States enacted Section 514 of the URAA, restoring copyrights in foreign works that had entered the public domain in the United States for any one of three reasons: a failure to comply with formalities (such as placing a copyright notice on published copies of a work); lack of subject matter protection; or lack of national eligibility. Section 514 did not restore copyrights in works whose copyright term had expired.

Clawing these works back from the public domain raised an obvious problem for members of the public who, relying on the fact that the subject works had entered the public domain, were making various uses of those works. One of the Golan plaintiffs, for example, created a derivative work sound recording based on several compositions by Shostakovich which had previously fallen into the public domain in the United States. To address this problem, Section 514 implemented certain protections for “reliance parties,” defined as parties who had exploited or created derivative works based on foreign public-domain works prior to restoration. Section 514 granted reliance parties who exploited foreign public-domain works a 12-month grace period, starting from receipt of notice of restoration from the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of copies of restored works. Furthermore, Section 514 authorized reliance parties who created derivative works based on restored works to continue exploiting those derivative works upon payment of “reasonable compensation” to the owner of the restored work (also upon receipt of notice of restoration).

The Golan plaintiffs – musicians, performers, educators and other creators – sued because they had exploited foreign works previously in the public domain and, after enactment of the URAA, were either prohibited from continuing to exploit those works or were required to pay cost-prohibitive licensing fees to the restored copyright holders. They argued that the removal of works from the public domain hampered their free speech rights and consequently violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. The District Court agreed and held the statute invalid.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed. As a threshold matter, the court addressed whether it should subject the statute to heightened scrutiny under the First Amendment. The court found no evidence that the government enacted the statute because of agreement or disagreement with a particular message. To the contrary, Congress passed the law to comply with international obligations and to protect the rights of American authors abroad. Thus, the court found the statute to be a content-neutral regulation subject to “intermediate scrutiny.” Under this test, courts uphold legislation if it (1) advances important governmental interests unrelated to the suppression of free speech and (2) does not burden substantially more speech than necessary to further those interests.

The Tenth Circuit found that the government had demonstrated a substantial interest in protecting American copyright holders’ interests abroad, because “[s]ecuring foreign copyrights for American works preserves the authors’ economic and expressive interests.” The United States’ failure to restore foreign copyrights following its adherence to Berne harmed those interests because other countries were following suit and refusing to restore copyright in American works. Though Section 514’s restoration of foreign copyrights does not guarantee that other countries will reciprocate, the Tenth Circuit reasoned that it owed Congress considerable deference in an area involving foreign relations, and concluded that substantial evidence supported Congress’s judgment.

The court also found that the “burdens imposed on the reliance parties are congruent with the benefits” of restoration. The “United States needed to impose the same burden on American reliance parties that it sought to impose on foreign reliance parties. . . . The burdens on speech are therefore directly focused to the harms that the government sought to alleviate.” As a result, Section 514 was narrowly tailored to achieve its goals. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Congress could have employed less restrictive means consistent with Berne’s requirements. Though a statute must be “narrowly tailored to serve the government’s legitimate, content-neutral interest,” it “need not be the least restrictive” means of doing so. Thus, the availability of other options to protect reliance parties’ interests did not alter the statute’s viability.

A look back at Eldred v. Ashcroft suggests that the Supreme Court may disagree with the Tenth Circuit’s application of intermediate scrutiny to Section 514. In Eldred, the plaintiffs sought to invalidate the Copyright Term Extension Act (“CTEA”), which increased the term of copyright from 50 years after the author’s death to 70 years after the author’s death. The Eldred plaintiffs argued that the CTEA was a content-neutral regulation of speech subject to heightened judicial review. In her majority opinion, however, Justice Ginsburg rejected the “imposition of uncommonly strict scrutiny on a copyright scheme that incorporates its own speech-protective purposes and safeguards,” finding that “copyright law contains built-in First Amendment accommodations” such as the idea-expression dichotomy and the fair use doctrine. The Court went on to hold that the “First Amendment securely protects the freedom to make–or decline to make–one’s own speech; it bears less heavily when speakers assert the right to make other people’s speeches. To the extent such assertions raise First Amendment concerns, copyright’s built-in free speech safeguards are generally adequate to address them.” Of course, three of the Justices who joined in that majority opinion – Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice O’Connor and Justice Souter – have since retired.

The Surpreme Court is expected to hear Golan in its next term, which begins in October, 2011. I will post briefs as they are filed. In the meantime, the parties’ Tenth Circuit briefs are posted below.

Opening Brief for the Appellants/Cross-Appellees

Opening and Response Brief for the Appellees/Cross-Appellants

Combined Reply and Responsive Brief for the Appellants/Cross-Appellees

Reply Brief for the Appellees/Cross-Appellants