Can You Re-Copyright Works That Fall Into Public Domain?

By: Joe Mullin |

Copyrights do end-although these days, they’re so long (95 years for most works) that you’d scarcely know it. Once a work does fall into the public domain, can it be copyrighted again? In 1994, Congress effectively said “yes” when it passed a law that the government argued was necessary to get the U.S. properly aligned with the Berne Convention, an important international copyright treaty. But a group of public-interest lawyers and small businesses that use public-domain works have challenged the law, and today the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear their case.

The works that will be affected by Golan v. Holder are all foreign, and date from the earlier part of the 20th century. For various reasons, they fell into the public domain in the U.S.-but are still under copyright outside the U.S. In 1994, Congress put the works back into copyrighted status, with the goal of aligning U.S. and international copyright law in certain ways.

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