WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court debated Wednesday whether Congress was wrong to block public access to Mickey Mouse and other classics.
In a case with appeal for many people, the court is considering whether it was unconstitutional for Congress to give writers and other creators a 20-year copyright extension.
Hanging in the balance are huge profits for companies, like The Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner Inc., which benefit from copyrights.
Some justices seemed bothered by the retroactive extension, enacted in 1998, which delayed the release of many old books and movies. But they seemed equally concerned about their standing to intervene.
"I can find a lot of fault with what Congress did," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said. "This flies directly in the face of what the framers of the Constitution had in mind, but is it unconstitutional?"
The extension protected some depictions of Disney's Mickey Mouse, along with hundreds of thousands of books, movies and songs that were about to be released into the public domain.
"If this [extension] is permitted, then there is no limit," Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig argued on behalf of a New Hampshire Internet publisher who challenged the law.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson told justices that while they may personally disagree with the law, Congress had authority to pass it.
"That is where the framers invested the responsibility," he said.
The court's eventual ruling will determine if the books, art and music will become freely available over the Internet or in digital libraries soon -- and whether people could use them without paying licensing fees.
The Constitution allows Congress to give authors and inventors the exclusive right to their works for a "limited" time. The Supreme Court is considering if the latest extension can apply retroactively.
Congress has repeatedly lengthened the terms of copyrights over the years. With the challenged 1998 extension, the period is 70 years after the death of the creator. Works owned by corporations are now protected for 95 years.
The 20-year extension, included in the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, brought U.S. rules in line with those of the European Union. It was supported by Disney and other companies with lucrative copyrights.
Hundreds of groups have filed arguments with the court in this case, some supporting the Bush administration and others on behalf of publisher Eric Eldred.
AOL Time Warner said if the extension were struck down, it would threaten copyrights for some of its movies, including Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.
Songs that would come into the public domain are "Stardust," "Yes! We Have No Bananas," and "Yes Sir! That's My Baby," the Songwriters Guild of America told the court.
The court's ruling will not affect trademarks, like the one Disney has for Mickey Mouse.
Erik S. Jaffe, a Washington attorney who filed a friend-of-the-court brief, said Congress could keep extending the copyright protection forever, even though creators have been adequately paid for their inventions.
"It's like the last mortgage note is to be paid, and the bank says, `No, you've got another 20 years,'" Jaffe said.
Olson told the court in a filing that Congress has been conservative with its extensions.
The case is Eldred v. Ashcroft, 01-618.