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The US Supreme Court has rejected a case that argued that works whose copyright terms have once expired should remain in the public domain, even if the term of copyright is subsequently extended to cover them again.
This has become a familiar sight in recent years. As copyright terms have been extended, works whose copyright had expired for a time found themselves removed from the public domain by extended terms; most famously, perhaps, James Joyce's seminal work Ulysses.
This case, filed in 2001 by a University of Denver music professor, contested Congress' right to place such works back in copyright. It treads similar ground to Professor Lawrence Lessig's previous failure to make the argument stick in the Eldred case before the Supremes in 2003. Lessig was contesting the CTEA, or Copyright Term Extension Act. This time, it was the United States' 1989 signature to the Berne Convention that was being contested.
"In aligning the United States with other nations bound by the Berne Convention, and thereby according equitable treatment to once disfavored foreign authors, Congress can hardly be charged with a design to move stealthily toward a regime of perpetual copyrights," the majority decreed. The justices added that Congress had added copyright exclusivity many times before.