Copyright Wars

If the Brothers Grimm tale about “the fairest one of all” had remained outside of the public domain, the Disney version of “Snow White” may never have lived happily ever after.

On Wednesday, Oct. 5, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Golan v. Holder, a case challenging the copyright provision of the 1994 Congressional Act that restored protections to works that entered the public domain after their copyrights had expired.

Peter Decherney, an associate professor of film studies in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, argues in a New York Times op-ed, “Will Copyright Stifle Hollywood?,” that there are many reasons the justices should conclude that Congress has gone too far in altering the U.S. copyright system.

He writes, “For one thing, restoring the copyright of works in the public domain is a different and more profound act than the extension of copyright terms. By removing works from the public domain, Congress has destabilized it. If foreign works can have their copyrights restored, why not works made in the United States? Filmmakers, producers and others who regularly rely on the public domain will become wary of using it.”

Decherney, who wrote an amicus brief for the plaintiff, is author of the forthcoming book “Hollywood’s Copyright Wars.” It explores the history of film piracy, the importance of plagiarism for the studio system, film directors’ campaign for “moral rights,” and Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with fair use, among other topics.

Text by Jacquie Posey
Video by Kurtis Sensenig