(CN) – A federal law that restores U.S. copyright protection to foreign works of art that were previously in the public domain does not violate the free speech rights of the performers and publishers who make money from those works, the 10th Circuit ruled.
Reversing a district court’s ruling that a section of the 1994 Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) ran afoul of the First Amendment, the Denver-based appellate panel found that the law protects U.S. copyright holders from being exploited in other countries and is no more broad than it needs to be.
A group of “orchestra conductors, educators, performers, publishers, film archivists and motion picture distributors” challenged the constitutionality of Section 514 of the URAA, which removed many foreign works from the public domain so that Congress could comply with the 1989 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. The convention required each signatory to provide the same copyright protections to authors in other member countries that it provides to its own authors.
The plaintiffs rely on the selling, performing and distributing of works in the public domain and are now required to pay licensing fees to the copyright holders, according to the ruling. They argued that the Act violates their freedom of expression under the First Amendment. The district court found for the plaintiffs and the government appealed, arguing that Section 514 is a “valid, content-neutral regulation of speech.”
Determining that Congress narrowly tailored the law to advance government interest, specifically that the copyrights of U.S. citizens would be treated similarly abroad, the three-judge appellate panel agreed with the government and reversed the district court ruling.
“Around the globe, American works were being exploited without the copyright owners’ consent and without providing compensation. Thus, there was a ‘substantial basis to support Congress’ conclusion that a real threat justified enactment of’ Section 514 of the URAA,” Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote. “In addition, the United States’ refusal to restore foreign copyrights was harming American authors’ interests abroad: foreign countries were following the United States’ example of refusing to restore copyrights in works in the public domain.
Further, the United States’ trading partners had represented that they would restore American copyrights only if the United States restored foreign copyrights. Foreign countries were willing to provide, at most, reciprocal copyright protections to American works.”
In enacting the “nuanced statute,” Briscoe added, Congress struck a balance between “American copyright holders and American reliance parties,” offering protections for both.
“Plaintiffs may have preferred a different method of restoring copyrights in foreign works, but that is not what the Constitution requires,” Briscoe wrote, “As long as the government has not burdened substantially more speech than necessary to further an important interest, the First Amendment does not permit us to second guess Congress’s legislative choice.”