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Copyright attorneys battle in U.S. Supreme Court to bring music to our ears—and symphony orchestras

The balance between protecting the works of writers, composers, and artists and being able to share their genius with the world is a delicate act, and one that conductor Lawrence Golan believe was wrongfully hobbled by the copyright law congress passed in 1994. For the last ten years, the conductor has been waging a legal campaign to have the law overturned, and now, the copyright attorneys are taking the battle to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to this article in Northwestern Public Radio online.

Golan’s quest to overturn the law came after he saw works by seminal 20th century composers get reclaimed under the 1994 copyright statute, which made it significantly more difficult for smaller and less well-funded orchestras to obtain the music to share with their communities. “Prokofiev, Shastakovich, Stravisnky. All of a sudden, on one day, you couldn’t [buy the music] anymore,” Golan laments. It’s not just sheet music. The plaintiffs represented by Golan suit’s copyright attorneys include educators, performers and film archivists, and point to the fact that Shakespeare is available to the public domain, but works by Virginia Woolf, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alfred Hitchcock, and Pablo Picasso, to name a few, are restricted after being available before 1994.

The 1994 recopyrighting was limited to foreign works, and was made in an effort to “align U.S. policy with an international copyright treaty,” according to copyright attorneys like Cam Tu Dang who practices in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of the main concerns raised by the lawsuit is whether Congress has “the constitutional right to remove works from the public domain? And if it does, what’s stopping it from plucking out even more freely available works,” wonders journalist Marc Perry. Golan’s lawyer argues that with recopyrighting works, Congress undermines “the value and usefulness of the public domain in a profound way if the rug can be pulled out from under you at any time.”

For the Golan lawsuit, it’s not just about ideas in the abstract. He argues that his orchestra in Yakima, Washington, can’t afford to pay for the copyrighted materials that are important for performers to experience and audiences to encounter. Teachers and educators agree. Librarians and scholars, for example, depend on accessibility of historical literature—musical, artistic and research based alike—to continue their work and studies.

But it’s not just academics who are affected, copyright attorneys in the Golan case argue. Online archives of digital books—like Google’s efforts—are affected by the legal implications of digitizing books and works of art. One advocate of overturning the recopyrighting law argues that “It’s deterring digitization on anything foreign because people can’t figure it out,” the law is so complex and nuanced. And it’s not just a few dollars in a symphony orchestra budget that’s at stake, either. The court rulings in the mid 1990s included testimony from “publishers, record companies, and other copyright-based industries that estimated that billions were being lost each year because foreign countries were failing to provide copyright protections to U.S. –originated works.” Thus the treaty, and recopyrighting of foreign works.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on the Golan case in the fall of 2014.

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