Eldred v. Ashcroft

Following is the case brief for Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003)

Case Summary of Eldred v. Ashcroft:

  • Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act, which extends a copyright from 50 years after the death of the author to 70 years.
  • Petitioners, a group of individuals and businesses who benefit from works that come into the public domain, sued in federal court.  They alleged that the extension violated the Constitution’s Copyright Clause and the First Amendment.
  • The District Court and Court of Appeals rejected petitioners’ claims.
  • The Supreme Court affirmed.  The Court held that Congress was within its constitutional authority to extend existing and future copyrights for 20 more years.

Eldred v. Ashcroft Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Copyright Clause of the Constitution, Art. I, sec. 8, cl. 8, provides that Congress shall have the power “[t]o promote the Progress of Science” by giving authors “for limited [t]imes” the exclusive right to their writings.  In 1998, Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) to extend the duration of copyrights by 20 years.  Specifically, the 1976 Copyright Act provided copyright protection from the work’s creation until 50 years after the author’s death. The CTEA changes that to 70 years after the author’s death.

Petitioners in this case are a group of individuals and businesses whose products and services depend on copyrighted works that have gone into the public domain.  They sued the United States, arguing that the CTEA violated the Copyright Clause and the First Amendment of the Constitution.  They assert that ‘life-plus-70-years’ is fine for new works, but should not apply to works with existing copyrights.

Procedural History:

The District Court entered a judgment on the pleadings for the United States, rejecting petitioners’ Copyright Clause and First Amendment arguments.  The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

  1. Does the CTEA’s extension of existing copyrights exceed the power of Congress under the Copyright Clause?  No.
  2. Does the CTEA’s extension of existing and future copyrights violate the First Amendment?  No.


The judgment of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Because Congress was within its constitutional authority to extend both existing and future copyrights, based on historical precedent, deference to Congress’s judgment on such matters, and a fair reading of the Copyright Clause, the CTEA is constitutional.


  • Extending existing copyrights does not violate the Copyright Clause.

The text, history, and precedent of the Copyright Clause does not support petitioners’ argument that adding 20 years to existing copyrights violates the Copyright Clause.  The 70-year-rule is still “limited” within the terms of the Clause.  Also, the idea that existing and future copyrights are treated with parity mirrors how Congress has treated copyright extensions in the past.  It would indeed be unfair to put an author who sold his work a week before a copyright extension in a worse position than one who sold his work a day after the extension.

Moreover, the Court gives substantial deference to Congress regarding Copyright Clause matters because the CTEA reflects judgments that Congress typically makes.  One major reason for the CTEA was because the European Union had a similar ‘life-plus-70-years’ copyright rule.  Congress was reasonable to give Americans the same copyright protection as their European counterparts.

  • The CTEA’s extension does not violate the First Amendment.

The Copyright Clause and the First Amendment were adopted close in time, showing that a copyright’s limited monopoly is still consistent with free speech principles.  Expression, not ideas, receive copyright protection.  Thus, free communication of facts is possible while still protecting an author’s expression.  And “fair use” even allows a limited use of expression.

Dissenting Opinion (Stevens):

Like patents, Congress may not expand a copyright beyond its expiration date.  Thus, extending existing copyrights violates the Copyright Clause.  The whole purpose of the time limitation on copyrights and patents is to promote the “Progress of Science” by allowing works to enter the public domain.

Just as it would be unfair to an author to shorten the copyright period (thereby not allowing him to enjoy the fruits of his labor), it is unfair to the public to lengthen the copyright period (thereby keeping something out of the public domain).  Further, the Court’s deference here seems to indicate that the CTEA is judicially unreviewable.

Dissenting Opinion (Souter):

The Copyright Clause allows Congress to promote the progress of science by giving exclusive rights to authors for only a limited amount of time.  The ‘life-plus-70-years’ rule makes the copyright term virtually perpetual.  Further, the massive financial benefits of extending the copyright do not go to authors but only to the heirs and corporations who hold the rights. Thus, CTEA does not promote the progress of science; rather, it inhibits it.


Eldred v. Ashcroft provides an in-depth analysis of the history and jurisprudence surrounding the Copyright Clause of the Constitution.  It also provides a good discussion on how the Clause seeks to balance the need to have authors enjoy the benefits of their work while still allowing progress in creative enterprise by eventually allowing the public to use the work in the public domain.  In that vein, Justice Breyer’s dissent in Eldred v. Ashcroft makes a strong argument regarding the seeming illogic of allowing heirs and corporations, who had no hand in making the original work, reap the benefits to the disadvantage of the public.

Student Resources: