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H-Net Joins Amicus Brief Challenging the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act
by Mark Lawrence Kornbluh, Executive Director

Access to information is basic to all intellectual pursuits and to political democracy. Copyright restrictions guarantee inventors and authors the right to benefit from the fruits of their labor, but this privilege needs to be balanced against the broader public interest in open intellectual discourse. From the outset, US law has sought to maintain this balance and to carve out a public sphere unfettered by private property rights to knowledge. The US Constitution gives Congress the authority to give authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries, but only for "limited times." The purpose of this right is not to secure private profit, but "to promote the progress of science and useful arts."

With the growth of a mass culture market and the development of new tools for digital distribution, private economic interests across the world have mounted a major challenge to this balance. Responding to political lobbying, the US Congress has extended copyright terms eleven times in the last 40 years, each time limiting public access to cultural heritage materials and intellectual discourse. The most recent extension, the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act added 20 years to all existing and future copyrights. Nothing in the Bono act speaks to the need to promote the progress of science and the arts. On the contrary, the Copyright Extension Act ignores authors and inventors and simply profits rights holders.

Any scholar or teacher involved in trying to research or teach with digital materials knows that access to our cultural and intellectual heritage is essential. Copyright restrictions and private property interests by large rights holders seem to hamper us at every turn, choking off the enormous educational potential of the digital revolution.

H-Net is committed to access and to developing the public intellectual sphere. Democratization of access is a founding principle of the organization. We believe that we all stand to benefit from freeing the flow of intellectual interchange. Consequently, when the US Supreme Court agreed to hear Eric Eldred's challenge to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, H-Net was eager to assist.. Along with the Organization of American Historians, H-Net has singed on to the Amicus brief prepared by Tyler T. Ochea, Mark Rose, and Edward C. Walterscheid. We are pleased that the brief clearly lays out the historical reasons for overturning the Copyright Extension Act and reaffirming this country's traditional balance between authorial rights and public needs. Read the Brief (PDF 167K)

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