Here's a Salon interview with the plaintiffs in the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case that the Supreme Court agreed to review last week.
Neither Eric Eldred nor Laura Bjorklund intended to become warriors in the battle over copyright. They simply wanted to publish old books; Eldred's Web site has hosted versions of old Nathaniel Hawthorne novels and Robert Frost poems since 1995, while Bjorklund's tiny Massachusetts publishing company focuses on genealogy texts and out-of-print histories.
But on Oct. 27, 1998, President Clinton, urged on by a Disney Corp. mindful that its Mickey Mouse copyright was about to expire, passed a law that extended copyright protection for an additional 20 years. Eldred and Bjorklund were outraged. In their view, the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act harmed the public by retroactively taking information from the public domain and putting it back under the control of copyright holders. Corporations would benefit, but small publishers and the general public, they argued, would suffer.
Lawrence Lessig, then a law professor at Harvard, heard their call and took on the case pro bono. Eldred and Bjorklund became the first two plaintiffs in a class action suit brought against Congress itself. On Feb. 19, after nearly four years of litigation, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
At issue is whether Congress -- with the constitutional authority to issue copyrights and patents "for limited times" to "promote the progress of science and useful arts" -- overstepped its bounds in this case. The previous law, passed in 1978, protected an author's work for 50 years after an author died, while works for hire -- those created for a corporation, like Mickey Mouse -- were protected for 75 years. The Bono Act extended both categories by two decades.
Those who favor the law argue that Congress should be allowed to determine the definition of "limited times" and that the Bono Act simply puts the U.S. on equal footing with European intellectual property laws, which offer a similar degree of protection.
Eldred and Bjorklund vehemently disagree. In their first joint interview since the Supreme Court decided to review the case, they exuberantly explained why in a conference call with Salon.