Supreme Court Upholds Right to Remove Works from Public Domain

by: Jake DeBacher

Over ten years ago, University of Denver professor Lawrence Golan filed a legal case to restore the public domain status of a number of works that were privatized in 1994 under an act of Congress. Now, after a decade of legal battles, the Supreme Court has ruled in Golan v. Holder to uphold the act which re-privatized works that had previously been public domain.

The result is that a number of previously free-to-perform pieces—including fairly standard repertoire by foreign composers like Stravinsky and Prokofiev—now must be paid for. This impedes the ability of ensembles on a tight budget, like Golan’s, to program contemporary works.

But the implications reach further than the programming of university symphonies. The plaintiff’s case also argued that artists will now be hindered by fear of using pieces that are currently in public domain, knowing that the government reserves the right to remove access to them later. The government’s ability to remove works from public domain was also called into question, but the Supreme Court voted 6-2 that the ability to do so falls “comfortably within Congress’… authority.”

The decision came as a great disappointment to musicians around the country. Golan’s case was supported by IMSLP, the online public-domain sheet music library that was recently involved in its own legal controversy.

It’s hard not to examine this copyright news in relation to the recent hubbub surrounding SOPA and PIPA. The government seems presently to uphold copyright law in a manner that is acceptable both for artists and consumers, and with the most recent legislature unequivocally rejected by the public, a solution seems more distant than ever.

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The Supreme Court’s Opinion, via



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