Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether a federal law that extends existing copyrights an additional 20 years and delays works from entering the public domain violates the First Amendment.


Affirmed (includes modified). Petitioning party did not receive a favorable disposition.


In 1998, President Bill Clinton signs into law the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (CTEA). This law generally extends the copyright term of existing copyrights an additional 20 years.
A group of individuals and publishers who rely on works in the public domain for their businesses file a lawsuit in federal court, seeking a declaration that the CTEA is unconstitutional. They argue that Congress exceeded its powers under the Copyright Clause when they passed the CTEA. They also argue that the CTEA violates the First Amendment.

Both a federal district court and a federal appeals court uphold the federal law. The federal appeals court says that copyright law already adequately protects free-speech values through doctrines such as fair use. The appeals court reasons that "copyrights are categorically immune from challenges under the First Amendment."

The appeals court also determines that Congress had the authority under the Copyright Clause of the United States Constitution to pass the CTEA.

The petitioners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court agreed to review the First Amendment and Copyright Clause questions.

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