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THE COPYRIGHT RULING

Entertainment Industry Breathes Sigh of Relief Over Court Action

January 16, 2003|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

Suzanne Lloyd has spent the last four years refurbishing her legacy: 26 films made by her grandfather, silent film star Harold Lloyd. She has spent millions on digitally restored prints and full orchestrations.

Now, as a result of Wed- nesday's decision by the Supreme Court reaffirming the current copyright law, she knows two things:

Her rights to these films are secure for two more decades.

And she'll have greater success protecting those rights.

"I've complained before to EBay about the auctions of pirated tapes," said Lloyd, whose offices are in Westwood. "Now they'll be more receptive. This ruling puts a little more glue onto my ownership."

The court decided 7-2 to let stand a 1998 law that added 20 years to the length of copyrights. No creative works will join Dickens, Shakespeare and Twain in the public domain until 2019. At that point, material from the Roaring '20s will start becoming available for free nearly a century after it was published or filmed.

Because the court endorsed the status quo, the entertainment world didn't gain anything. But it was thrilled not to lose. Defeat would have put the industry on the moral and legal defensive in its life-or-death fight against unauthorized downloading.

"It's a wonderful decision to have," said industry lawyer Carey Ramos. "In the various lawsuits going on, there will now be citations that the Supreme Court has endorsed copyright as the engine of free expression and means of promoting creativity."

Many of those who had been responsible for challenging the law had realistically expected to lose. Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig, who filed the case and saw it through two lower court defeats, tried to find some small consolation.

"It has often been said that movements gain by losing in the Supreme Court," he wrote on his Web page. "Some feminists say it would have been better to lose Roe because that would have built a movement in response. I have often wondered whether it would ever be possible to lose a case and yet smell victory in the defeat.

"I'm not yet convinced it's possible," he added. "But if there is any good that might come from my loss, let it be the anger and passion that now gets to swell against the unchecked power that the Supreme Court has said Congress has."

The battleground for copyright now shifts to Congress, where the court said it belongs.

"Any battles won in Congress to extend the scope of copyright will be presumptively immune from constitutional challenge," said Stanford University copyright expert Paul Goldstein.

The entertainment industry, having secured one flank with the victory, can now concentrate on the greater copyright threat of unauthorized downloading.

"It doesn't matter how long a copyright lasts for if it can't be enforced," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), principal author of the Peer to Peer Piracy Prevention measure.

His bill would allow copyright owners to use technological measures to impede the transfer of files on publicly accessible peer-to-peer trading networks often used by pirates. Critics said the bill would give movie studios and music companies too much latitude to interfere with legitimate activities on file-sharing networks in their search for unauthorized copying.

The Peer to Peer bill died at the end of the last congressional session. Berman said he is retooling the measure and planned to reintroduce it.

"I believe the rampant downloading and uploading of music files is a violation of existing copyright law," Berman said. "Now that that law has been upheld, it means more music copyrights are being violated rather than less."

Activists and academics who had hoped to overturn the current law spoke hopefully of arousing the masses.

"This ruling definitely will highlight to the public that Congress and the courts don't care about their interests, and it's time for them to get angry," said New York University professor Siva Vaidhyanathan. "They'll understand this issue when schoolbooks cost more, when textbooks only come in electronic form and they can't share them or return them, when they find they can't put their music on a portable CD player for the gym."

Ramos mocked the idea that people would even notice the court decision. "Millions of people are not going to say, 'Let's have a day of protest where we stay home and download music.' It ain't going to happen. If three people do it, I'll be shocked," he said.

Bruce Sterling, author of "The Hacker Crackdown" and a cyber-rights activist, more or less agreed with Ramos, but from a different perspective. "People aren't going to march on Washington for the right to rip off Disney. They're just going to rip off Disney."

Joe Kraus, with the consumer group Digitalconsumer.org, said he hoped the decision was "a rallying cry." But he acknowledged that "it will be a long process."

As for Suzanne Lloyd, she's looking ahead to a different sort of future. She's getting ready to make her grandfather's work available on VHS and DVD.

As a result of the Supreme Court's decision, Lloyd not only is free of any competing versions but will have legal control over anyone who wants to adapt or reinterpret or extensively borrow from the comedian's work. Her authority is complete.

For Lloyd, that's the way it should be.

"I'm happy that people won't be able to take his art and show it in a way that would diminish or hurt it, or put it in a way that he wouldn't have wanted," she said.

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