Golan v. Holder

PETITIONER: Lawrence Golan, et al.
RESPONDENT: Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General, et al.

DOCKET NO.: 10-545
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 565 US (2012)
GRANTED: Mar 07, 2011
ARGUED: Oct 05, 2011
DECIDED: Jan 18, 2012

Anthony T. Falzone - for the petitioners
Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondents

Facts of the case

In 1994, Congress passed the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. Section 514 of the act restored U.S. copyright protection to foreign parties whose works had entered the public domain. A group of artists, including musician Lawrence Golan, who made use of the works while they were in the public domain filed a lawsuit in Colorado's federal court to challenge the restoration of copyright, arguing that doing so violated their First Amendment rights.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado held that Section 514 of the URAA does not violate the Copyright Clause or the First Amendment. The district court also rejected Golan's First Amendment challenge, seeing "no need to expand upon the settled rule that private censorship via copyright enforcement does not implicate First Amendment concerns." The United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. The court agreed that Section 514 of the URAA does not exceed Congress' authority under the Copyright Clause, but it vacated the district court's First Amendment ruling and remanded for further proceedings.


(1) Does the Progress Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibit Congress from taking works out of the public domain?

(2) Does Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution?

Media for Golan v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 05, 2011 in Golan v. Holder

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 18, 2012 in Golan v. Holder

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The second case I have to announce is Golan v. Holder, No. 10-545.

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, established in 1886, is the principal accord governing international copyright relations.

Berne's 164 member states agreed to provide a minimum level of copyright protection and to treat authors from other member countries as well as they treat their own.

Of central importance in this case, Berne's Article 18 requires countries to protect existing foreign works whose term of protection has not yet expired either in the country of origin or the country where protection is claimed.

The United States finally joined Berne in 1989, but initially deferred compliance with Article 18.

In the following years, other Berne members objected to our incomplete adherence, some refused to protect existing U.S. works, others threatened enforcement by recourse to the then new World Trade Organization.

In 1994, Congress put to rest any question about U.S. compliance with Article 18.

Section 514 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act extended a copyright protection to foreign works that enjoyed protection in their country of origin, but not the U.S. protection for any of three reasons.

The country of origin had not maintained copyright relations with the United States, the work was a pre-1972 sound recording or the author failed to comply with U.S. statutory formalities.

Under Section 514, the foreign works term of protection expires at precisely the time it would have expired had the work enjoyed U.S. protection from the outset.

These newly protected works previously were part of the U.S. public domain which means they had been freely available for use with no need for permission from the author or copyright owner.

To cushion the impact of the works' transition to protect this status, Congress provided accommodations for those who have previously used the foreign works.

Petitioners are musicians, conductors, publishers and others who formally enjoyed free access to works 514 removed from the public domain.

They maintain that Section 514 is invalid under both Constitution's Copyright Clause and the First Amendment.

Because the works previously entered the public domain, they assert, they must forever remain there.

The Tenth Circuit rejected this narrow view of Congress' copyright authority and so do we.

The Copyright Clause does not place beyond Congress' reach works that never enjoyed U.S. copyright protection or enter the public domain prematurely.

Neither congressional practice nor our decisions treat the public domain in any and all cases as untouchable by copyright legislation.

The First Amendment likewise provides no exceptional solicitude for works in the public domain.

As we held in 2003 in Eldred v. Ashcroft, copyright law's built-in safe guard for free expression, the fair use doctrine and the idea expression dichotomy generally accommodate a speaker's right to free expression regarding copyrighted works.

Section 514 respects both limits.

The provision simply brings certain foreign works under the very same legal regime that applies to domestic and most of the foreign works.

That alignment does not unconstitutionally abridge free speech.

In sum, we are satisfied that neither the Copyright Clause nor the First Amendment bars the unstinting adherence Congress gave to the Berne Convention.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Alito has joined.