- The Washington Times - Friday, January 20, 2012

The Supreme Court on Wednesday made it a crime to play without permission the music of a Russian composer who’s been dead for 58 years. A 6-2 ruling pulled the works of Sergei Prokofiev out of the public domain, requiring orchestras who have been legally using his music for free to begin paying fat royalties to some estate. As this heavy-handed decision came down, the public began to fight back against the congressional push to further tighten the screws of copyright law.

High-profile websites like Google and Wikipedia asked visitors to call and urge their congressmen to reject the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These bills would give the attorney general authority to declare nondomestic websites as “infringing” and shut them down. The public outrage at the idea of Big Brother messing with the Internet swamped Capitol Hill phone lines. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was forced to issue a tweet of retreat. “In light of recent events, I have decided to postpone Tuesday’s vote on the Protect IP Act,” said the Nevada Democrat.

Members of Congress had been promoting these bills at the behest of Hollywood. Motion-picture and record studios have always feared the march of technology. In 1976, Universal and Disney sued Sony to try to stamp out the videocassette recorder. In 1999, the industry launched lawsuits to stop peer-to-peer file-sharing software and music downloads. Tinseltown has been wrong at every step. Once they resigned themselves to adapt to the market place, studios made billions on sales of videotapes and music downloads.

That’s why it’s time Congress told Hollywood to take a hike. Copyright law has strayed far beyond the original intent of the Founders. Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. made this point in their dissent to Wednesday’s Golan v. Holder decision. They cited correspondence between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to show copyright was meant to be a strictly utilitarian device for the promotion of the arts and sciences. “The statute before us, however, does not encourage anyone to produce a single new work,” the justices wrote. “By definition, it bestows monetary rewards only on owners of old works - works that have already been created and already are in the American public domain.”

The logical consequence of the majority’s decision and the ever-expanding copyright push by Hollywood’s congressional fan club is that one day we could be forced to pay a toll to read documents as seminal as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, just as current law requires paying a tithe to the family of Martin Luther King Jr. for the privilege of using his famous speech on his national holiday.

The public needs to do more than just oppose SOPA and PIPA. The entire copyright scheme needs to be overhauled so that it more closely matches what the authors of the Constitution envisioned.

The Washington Times

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